“There is nothing much to see, anyhow. It’s nothing but a cheap common dump”. Two Nursemaids pushing posh perambulators deliver their harsh commentary as they follow the newspaper trail, gawping at the seedy brownstone tenement where Anna Maurrant, the housewife hero of Kurt Weill’s only American opera, has been murdered. Weill’s key scene near the end of the opera deliberately challenges the audience to dismiss the popular view and be more sympathetic to the dense vibrant communities emerging in 1947 New York. Street Scene is a foreigner’s American music, a bittersweet mix of show tunes, snappy dialogue and radiantly lyrical numbers, all with an austere biting undercurrent in the harmonies, even in its sunniest moments. A masterpiece of social commentary, requiring a huge cast and orchestra, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland really pushed the boat out for its final performance of the year.

<i>Street Scene</i> © Robbie McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Street Scene
© Robbie McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

It is summer in the city outside a battered tenement and stiflingly humid as we follow the fortunes of the resident families of different nationalities trying to rub along together. All of life is here as everyone goes about their daily business and children play in the street. Gossip, cultural differences, prejudice and misplaced love fuel tensions which boil over into hatred and violence, with childbirth and an eviction adding pepper to the explosive mix.   

The work is hugely demanding to stage with 32 named (singing and non-singing) roles requiring several principals who appear throughout, but also several more who star in key numbers as well as adult and children’s chorus. A large orchestra including a space-hogging grand piano and drum kit were shoehorned into the pit in a production using resources from right across the Conservatoire’s departments. The large professional creative team including dialect coach, fight director and children’s conductor were headed up by director Alexandra Spencer-Jones with designer Adrian Linford.

<i>Street Scene</i> © Robbie McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Street Scene
© Robbie McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Linford’s spectacular, battered off-set tenement with doors, windows and balconies overlooking the sidewalk had a backdrop of Manhattan, dramatically lit by Charlie Morgan-Jones capturing the extended range of city moods perfectly. The New York streets don’t sleep for long and Spencer-Jones marshalled her considerable forces precisely creating bustle and gossip but giving room for the soloists to shine. It is all the more difficult to pull off as there is considerable dialogue with much of it over the orchestra, requiring some light tasteful amplification to help in these passages, not always completely successful on opening night.

The music is divided into numbers, with some genuine show tunes but most have operatic origin and tone-painting. A slow blues about the awful heat bookended the work, while Arthur Bruce as Henry the janitor soulfully sang about ‘A Marble and a Star’ – even the garbage man can have the American Dream, and Christopher Dollins as the Russian Jew Abraham Kaplan grumbled about the Capitalist Press. Rose Stachniewska and Seumas Begg both gave a winning central performance as the childless couple leading an effervescent ice-cream sextet. One hit wonders aplenty too from Joanna Harries as Jenny Hildebrand, happily graduating from college, but returning to face family eviction and Colin Murray, slippery as an eel as Harry Easter who tries to entice Rose Maurrant to a career on Broadway. Musical theatre students Mia Michaud as Mae Jones and Samuel Stevenson as Dick McGann, the young couple out on the town, sang and tap-danced their way thrillingly through the show-stopping ‘Moon Faced, Starry Eyed’.

<i>Street Scene</i> © Robbie McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
Street Scene
© Robbie McFadzean | Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Children thread right through this opera, and the team from the Junior Conservatoire were outstanding in ensemble with Jenny’s ‘Wrapped in a Ribbon’ and especially in the second act street-game song, the happy games descending into a brawl, a sign of things to come.

The main story centres on the Maurrant family, ruled by Frank who bullies his wife Anna so harshly she looks elsewhere for love, her daughter Rose fending off unwelcome advances as she tries to balance Sam Kaplan, the unsuitable boy next door with Harry Easter’s loaded promises while Willie the schoolboy pushes his parents to the limits of tolerance. Pedro Ormetto was a deep-voiced brooding violent Frank, a tall oozing menace onstage. Emma Mockett’s tough Anna became fragile and moving in Weill’s almost Puccini-like ‘Somehow, I Never Could Believe’. Rebecca Godley as Rose and Thomas Kinch as Sam were an endearing mismatched couple, enormous roles for young singers to carry.

Conductor Robert Houssart took the music along at a steady pace, successfully keeping the large forces tightly together with exuberant fizzing exciting city sounds and emotional swell coming from the players who were clearly enjoying getting to grips with the piece.

All in all, this was a very smart ambitious show indeed with lots to enjoy, a successful ensemble showcase involving over 170 students from right across the Conservatoire.

****1