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Street Scene

at Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

* * * - -

Although a great display of talent, the RCS’s students are stunted by Weill’s flawed opera.

Image of Street Scene
Image by Robbie McFadzean

In their production of Kurt Weill’s opera Street Scene, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland takes its audience back to 1947 to meet the multicultural residents living together in a dilapidated New York City tenement. Street gossip and sweltering heat leads (eventually) to some devastating events, shaking the foundations of this seemingly tight-knit community.

It is evident by the end of the performance why Street Scene was chosen by RCS; as the performers gradually appear to take a bow, only then do you realise the sheer number of cast members involved within this production. It is understandably attractive to an institution that wishes to give a platform to many of its students – and that it certainly does. The vocal abilities demanded of the singers also signifies a remarkable achievement for the collective ensemble, many of the leading players proving their worth. There are some great characterisations which stand out from the ensemble. Carolyn Holt’s unsympathetic and shady Mrs Jones, frequently seen watching the street from above, is as oppressive as the city heatwave. Then there are the Fiorentinos: Seumas Begg’s pocket-sized Italian stallion, Lippo, steals the show as soon as he walks onstage, prompting a surreal Ice Cream Sextet which accentuates the summer heat-induced delirium. His German wife Greta (Rose Stachniewska) is equally enjoyable to watch. A special mention should also go to Musical Theatre students Mia Michaud and Samuel Stevenson, whose dance number offers a welcome change of pace.

However, all of these elements do not equate to Street Scene being a riveting opera. There are no songs that stay with you once the curtain has fallen. There is one number that has the potential to be memorable – Ain’t It Awful – yet the performers’ enunciation, hindered by the accents many of the cast are required to assume, means very little of what is sung is understood. What is worse, the opera’s structure is incredibly uneven: nothing happens in Act I – only speculation about a suspected affair. Yet in the second half, a series of tragic events come in quick succession, involving only a few of the cast. Consequently, many of the intriguing characters introduced in the first half are left forgotten as the focus is put solely on the Maurrants.

The opera’s age also shows in scenes that are distasteful today. Colin Murray’s Weinstein-type Harry Easter is uncomfortable to watch, especially given how jovial his song Wouldn’t You Like to Be on Broadway? Is. It may have some attendees questioning calling whether a production featuring such a character should be performed during today’s sexual-political climate – particularly when the cast includes young children.

Street Scene’s ultimate flaw is its lack of likeable leading characters. Even the love story between Rose Maurrant (Rebecca Godley) and Sam Kaplan (Thomas Kinch) is difficult to engage with, with Sam coming across as too involved in his own trite suffering to truly connect with Rose following a tragic event. This is not the fault of the performers, but rather the limited character development afforded them by lyricist Langston Hughes. We therefore do not have an emotional connection to the show as with West Side Story, which Street Scene is frequently compared to.

Street Scene will be engaging enough to the family and friends who are there to see those onstage exhibit their singing and acting skills. Those without that connection, however, may struggle to stay seated the whole way through.

/ @beth_blakemore


Beth is our Theatre Editor here at The Wee Review. Currently an MScR in Hispanic Studies student at the University of Edinburgh, she likes to write reviews as a way of forcing herself to leave the library from time to time. Previously Fringe and Culture editor at The Student newspaper.

Comments

6 Responses to Street Scene

  1. Paul Brownsey says:

    “There are no songs that stay with you once the curtain has fallen.”

    False. There are many memorable numbers.

    “What is worse, the opera’s structure is incredibly uneven: nothing happens in Act I – only speculation about a suspected affair.”

    No. The first half sets up the scene so that the second half can make its impact. The pressures of tenement life are revealed step by step, and in consequence the awful events of the second half resist simplistic accounting. It is a very effective procedure.

    “The opera’s age also shows in scenes that are distasteful today. Colin Murray’s Weinstein-type Harry Easter is uncomfortable to watch, especially given how jovial his song Wouldn’t You Like to Be on Broadway? Is. It may have some attendees questioning calling whether a production featuring such a character should be performed during today’s sexual-political climate – particularly when the cast includes young children.”

    It is frightening that such a paragraph should appear, as though anything in art that doesn’t reflect today’s moral high ground must be excluded. Why should Weinstenian characters not be portrayed? They exist. Why should the tune not be cheerful? Their blandishments can be beguiling–that’s part of the problem. This is comparable to those who want to cut the bit in Carousel about not feeling it when someone you love hits you, even though that is actually true of some people.

    “Street Scene’s ultimate flaw is its lack of likeable characters.”

    Likable characters are not necessary to art. Save that sort of remark for the more sophomoric book groups.

    “Sam coming across as too involved in his own trite suffering to truly connect with Rose following a tragic event.”

    I think the critic underestimates the complexity of the Sam-Rose relationship.

  2. Beth Blakemore says:

    Hi Paul. Thank you for your comments, though I am sad to see that we are in such disagreement – especially if your comments are in reference to the RCS performance and not just the opera in general.

    I appreciate your defence of the opera’s structure. The issue was that so many of the performers that made the first act enjoyable – Mrs Jones, the Fiorentinos etc. – are sidelined in the second act for a couple who I struggled to engage with. The lack of likeable characters should have been explicitly referencing the main characters – i.e. the Maurrants – and the difficulty to empathise with them. The complexity the Sam-Rose relationship did not come across in this performance, and that therefore raises questions about how they were portrayed by the performers. Much of my criticisms were focused towards the opera itself, but perhaps I should have considered the execution of this relationship more thoroughly (though that would not have changed my overall opinion of the show).

    I respect your comment about Harry Easter, and I did wonder whether to include it. However, I stand by my decision. Again, it is based on the execution of the performance. It was very uncomfortable to watch – the humorous element to his character did not come across at all. For such a character to work in today’s age, a lot of effort should be put in to the characterise, to highlight the sleaziness of his character and his deplorable offer, for example. This did not happen. It was the casual nature of the portrayal that caused concern, knowing that it potentially could influence the younger cast members involved (not seeing him as an immoral figure).

  3. Tricia says:

    I completely agree with Mr Brownsey’s comments. I thought that both the opera and the performances came across pretty well though, as usually happens, some bits came across better than others. I didn’t have the impression that many people in my part of the auditorium were friends or relatives of the cast, and they all seemed to enjoy the evening.
    Like Mr Brownsey, I do not expect characters to be likeable; if I did I would have to jettison innumerable operas, plays and novels, many of them recognised classics. Like Mr Brownsey, I am disturbed by the suggestion that Harry Easter is unsuitable fare for to-day’s sheltered youth, nor do I think that the way he was played is relevant. Plenty of apparently delightful people turn out to be rather nasty.

  4. Andrew McCloud says:

    Completely agree with these comments. I think if you felt uncomfortable during that section then the performer was doing exactly what he was supposed to be doing…

    In addition, your rating of this performance seems to based on a dislike/misunderstanding of the opera. You base your judgement on a lack of plot which is actually the device which makes this piece effective. The lack of plot is what makes the opera realistic and the final outcome all the more devastating.

  5. Paul Brownsey says:

    “It was very uncomfortable to watch – the humorous element to his character did not come across at all. For such a character to work in today’s age, a lot of effort should be put in to the characterise, to highlight the sleaziness of his character and his deplorable offer, for example. ”

    That is was uncomfortable for you to watch is a piece of autobiography not really relevant to criticism.

    “For such a character to work in today’s age, ”

    I don’t know that characters need to work “in today’s age”. They certainly don’t need to reflect today’s headline concerns.

    ” a lot of effort should be put in to the characterise, to highlight the sleaziness of his character and his deplorable offer, for example.”

    Those of us who are grown up know about such characters, and in any case the opera points up his character pretty well through the daughter’s responses to him. I think your concern that the younger cast members might not see him as immoral is very patronising.

  6. Paul Brownsey says:

    “the Maurrants – and the difficulty to empathise with them.”

    I have no problem empathising with them; that is the genius of this opera. Not that one needs to empathise with characters. Why do you insist on empathising with characters?

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