Review: Street Scene, Opera North, Leeds Grand Theatre, Saturday 18th January 2020

KURT Weill’s Street Scene, with lyrics by Langston Hughes and Elmer Rice, was premiered on Broadway in January 1947. Weill’s aim was to create what he called “an authentically American opera” by mixing various idioms including the American musical theatre, jazz, popular song and Italian opera.

Street Scene traces the lives of immigrant residents in a run down Manhattan tenement over a stiflingly hot 24 hours. Production director Matthew Eberhardt soon creates a sweltering atmosphere. Before long, I was gasping for a vanilla cone from feisty Italian vendor Lippo Fiorentino, sung by tenor Christopher Turner in the exuberant ensemble Ice Cream Sextet.

There is an epic quality to designer Francis O’Connor’s soaring four storeys of staircases and landings which reach the full height of the procenium opening. Among the cosmopolitan families living here are the Kaplans, headed by Dean Robinson’s paternally moralising Abraham Kaplan. The Maurrant family is dominated, in Puccinian grand operatic style, by Robert Hayward’s brutish husband Frank with Giselle Allen as Anna, his sweet and tolerant wife.

The young love interest is provided by their daughter Rose, sung by soprano Gillene Butterfield with tenor Alex Banfield as earnest law student Sam Kaplan. The structure loosely hangs together around these principals but they far from dominate what is essentially an ensemble opera. Nearly three dozen named roles provide ample opportunities for a veritable feast of cameos, and several principal roles, by members of the Opera North Chorus.

Baritone Bryon Jackson, as Henry Davis the Janitor, beautifully sings the jazz and blues influenced number I Got a Marble and a Star. Jackson and Rodney Vubya as Dick McGann are, surprisingly, the only two black artists in a gallery of richly diverse residents, law enforcement officers, debt collectors and other visitors.

A vibrant company, spectacular visual effects and loads of authentic atmospheric detail undoubtedly lift this new production of Street Scene into the “not to be missed” category. And the Orchestra of Opera North’s brilliant realisation of Kurt Weill’s delectable score, conducted by James Holmes, is as good as it gets. Street Scene continues at Leeds Grand on 25th January, 12th, 20th and 28th February.

Geoffrey Mogridge