Lost in the Stars


From Berlin to Broadway: An Evening of Kurt Weill

      May 17, 2003, Wilder Center, Norfolk State University. The star of this show was the world-class conductor Julius Rudel as guest conductor of a fifteen-piece theatre orchestra drawn from the Virginia Symphony. Playing "Three Penny Music" from Weill's opera Die Dreigroschenoper (1928) with text by the playwrite Bertolt Brecht, he created just the right balance of jazz rhythm and ferocity found in the music.

      This is the 75th Anniversary Year of The Three Penny Opera as it's known in America. It is a rewrite of a 1728 ballad opera written by the Englishman John Gay. The critic Harold C. Schonberg describes it: "Weill's little opera was bitter...anti-everything that was considered opera. It also was as much a social as musical document reflecting the terrible post-war period in Germany." Schonberg goes on to say that Weill never duplicated his success.

      Denyce Graves, the internationally known mezzo-soprano originally scheduled to sing, was incapacitated by vocal complications. Mezzo-soprano Angelina Réaux sang in her place. Trained in both theatre and classical music, her first selection was Surabaya Johnny from Happy End (1929) as was The Manadalay Song by baritone Matthew Hayward.

      After a second set of orchestral songs drawn from The Threepenny Music the orchestra was reconfigured with strings and harp as some players including the flutist and several percussionists left. While Kurt Weill lived in Paris after fleeing Berlin he wrote Marie Galante (text by Jacques Deval) and in French Ms. Réaux performed Le Roi d'Aquitaine (The King of Aquitaine) and with Mr. Hayward sang a duet Le Train du Ciel (The train to heaven).

      If you are a listener looking for an experience of these French selections that offers a full realization of what Weill wrote, try Nonesuch Records CD (E2-79131) Stratas Sings Weill with soprano Teresa Stratas and the Y Chamber Symphony conducted by Gerhard Schwartz. The CD has 15 Weill songs.

      There is also Berlin & American Theatre Songs with Lotte Lenya, Mrs. Kurt Weill, the singer. This CBS CD (MK 42658) has 12 American songs and eight German ones.

      The songs on the balance of the program were written with several different American writers and were drawn from several shows: Lost in the Stars (1949), One Touch of Venus (1943), The Firebrand of Florence (1944), Knickerbocker Holiday (1938), Street Scene (1946) and Lady in the Dark (1940). I grew weary of the program before it was over. As the Oxford Dictionary of Music, 2nd edition, says it "In America [Weill] wrote several successful Broadway musicals, lacking the pungency of his German operas, but of high merit nonetheless."

      This was not art song recital in style of performing. On an opera stage Mr. Hayward could be very pleasing. With a microphone a vocalist has the option of nuanced, even quiet exploration of the musical line. A song like September Song is an example that would have benefitted from such treatment. Ms. Réaux belted out her lyrics forte. She had a way with the sultry and suggestive songs but vulnerability and pain and even love as in Speak Low and What Good Would the Moon Be? were not well served by her delivery. Paul Sayegh in his review in the Virginian-Pilot (5/19/03) gives an excellent description of the strengths and limits of this program and singers. To quote him "This was not a performance about vocal beauty, but living these songs...In this she was aided immensely by Rudel, who gave a master class in how to accompany..." I'll end where I began: Julius Rudel was the star of this show.

Julius Rudel Conducts Lost in the Stars
Featuring the Perry Brothers and Larry Giddens

As a teenager I was deeply moved by the novel Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. The message was that embracing our common humanity was the way forward in healing the racial divide in South Africa during apartheid. Playwright Maxwell Anderson turned the novel into a play and Kurt Weill (1900-1950) composed the music and called it "Lost in the Stars. In the late 1940's all of Weill's works were focused on bringing needed social-issue messages to America. In this play he speaks to our deeply divided racist nation.

It is a measure of how things have changed in our country in the 50 years since the piece first came to the stage that an evenly racially mixed audience saw the musical in the recently restored, historically black Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia on April 26, 2008 (other performances were April 25 and 27). Although the play is dated with pretentious dialogue that is both preachy and tedious, the emotional impact of the conclusion is powerful because the healing of divisions between people is always relevant.

Weill called it a musical/tragedy in two acts. Composer and critic Virgil Thomson (1896-1989), who was reviewer of the first staging, described it as "not purely or chiefly a musical narrative. It is a play with musical numbers, a singspiel." He found the tunes weak but their scoring masterful.

Playwright Anderson plotted the book scene-by-scene and brought the story to the stage that way. The minutia of every aspect of the story was acted out in a very long first act. The role of Leader, powerfully sung by local baritone Larry J. Giddens, Jr., gave him little to do. Used as a narrator he could have moved the story along, making several staged scenes unnecessary. Perhaps if the structure of the play were more concise we wouldn't have lost a quarter of the audience at intermission.

The work contrasts the rural world with the urban, white with black, idealism with cynicism, and prejudice with tolerance. Two families in a rural area of Natal province collide in apartheid South Africa. The Kumalo family is black and the Jarvis family is white. Stephen Kumalo, played by Herbert Perry, is a black Anglican priest, with a son Absalom, played by his twin brother Eugene Perry, who works in the mines and a brother John who lives in Johannesburg and is a political activist with street smarts. Rich planter James Jarvis, played by Martin Giles, has a son Arthur, played by Stephen Neely, a celebrated campaigner for racial equality, who also lives in Johannesburg. Stephen goes in search of his son at his wife's urging, only to find the son is in trouble with the law, has a pregnant girlfriend who deeply loves him and has inadvertently killed Arthur Jarvis in a bungled robbery attempt. The law takes its course and the priest's appeal to planter Jarvis to help spare his son's life is to no avail.

On the evening before his son is to be hanged Stephen resigns his pastorate only to have Jarvis, who was outside listening, come to be with him and refuses to leave because, as he says, they have both lost a son. Race divided them. Common humanity has brought them together. The young boy each is raising will be allowed to play with the other.

To bring Lost in the Stars to a local stage was a huge undertaking. It involved Virginia Arts Festival, Virginia Stage Company and Opera Theater Pittsburg where the production was presented in February with the same cast. The 14 player theater orchestra for our local performance was drawn from the Virginia Symphony and was conducted by Julius Rudel who had put it all together. John Eaton of Opera Theater Pittsburg directed the production and Stephen Neely was chorus master for the chorus of 47 singers.

Danila Korogodsky created an excellent unit set consisting of high grass with a black backdrop with stars. The 47 member chorus, sometime as characters in the drama on stage, more often as a Greek Chorus singing from the boxes on either side of the stage, helped to make the production more dynamic by their movements and this placement helped expand the performing space. The singing was excellent with clear diction.

Irina, Absalom's pregnant girlfriend, well acted by Dzidzofe Avouglan, had the best known song, the emotionally wrenching Trouble Man. Linda Huston, as the priest's wife, has a small but memorable role. The only scene of nightlife in Soweto, Johannesburg's shanty town, seemed to be out of place in this stark drama. Denise Sheffey Powell created the sensually dangerous character Linda. Her song Who Will Buy, is about selling various fruits and vegetables as a metaphor for sex. Kevin brown was excellent as the priest's city brother who has a much clearer grasp of the class struggle.

Conductor Julius Rudel, who turned 87 on March 6th, led an excellent performance. We heard much but saw nothing except the snowy crown of his head projecting above the orchestra pit. We clapped anyway. At the end he did take a bow on stage to acknowledge much deserved applause.

Kurt Weill Songs

      On November 15, 2002, in an Art Song of Williamsburg recital, Martha Slay did a set of Weill songs that we found exceptionally well-sung. Jennifer Bern-Vogel sang a program of Weill songs on April 5, 2003 in Norfolk. On May 24, 2003, baritone Troy Cook sang a set of four songs on texts by Walt Whitman from his Civil War poems, with music by Kurt Weill as a Memorial Day tribute. The poetry is a powerful expression of mankind's experience of war and Weill's music enchances the power of the words. The singer was excellent in these songs.

All reviews by John Campbell unless otherwise noted.

Friday, May 20, 2011
Chrysler Hall, Norfolk
by M.D. Ridge

An outstanding production of Amadeus, which combined Peter Shaffer’s Tony- and Oscar-winning play and Mozart’s extraordinary musical genius, enraptured a full house at Chrysler Hall May 20. Joining forces were the actors of the Chautauqua Theater Company, instrumentalists and singers of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and a stunning group of vocal soloists.

But numbers alone do not make an evening this spectacular. First, it takes a strong story line, which Shaffer’s play has in abundance: the court musician Salieri, who has vowed to put his music in God’s service, is faced with the blinding genius God has given the bumptious, vulgar Mozart. Bitterly envious, Salieri sets out to destroy Mozart, and succeeds so deftly that the younger composer believes Salieri to be his true friend to the last. Even so, Salieri is the one person who recognizes Mozart’s gift and cherishes it even as he tries to deny it.

Ray Dooley brought out both the calculated evil of Salieri’s machinations and his internal war between loathing for a giggling twit and awe at the beauty of his rival’s music. The great irony is that Salieri, given ample opportunity, cannot bring himself to destroy the extraordinary music — just its composer. (Salieri actually was quite a good composer — not on Mozart’s level, but no one could have been.)

As the immature, spendthrift, foulmouthed, cocksure young genius, Blake Segal had energy to spare, bounding around as if on springs, gleefully mounting his wife underneath the harpsichord — a brilliant kid among stodgy but ambitious grownups, which made all the more poignant his decline in health and hope. There was an amusing moment when he stood behind Falletta, “directing” the orchestra — with quite different gestures.

Rachel Spencer Hewitt was the giddy but staunchly faithful Constanze; Craig Wesley Divino and Paul Mullens switched among variety of roles; and Philip Goodwin was perfect as the clueless emperor of “Too many notes — well, there you have it” fame.

Had this production of Amadeus been solely a play, it would have impressed its audience with Vivienne Benesch’s excellent direction and the fine acting of its cast. But the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, under the masterful baton of JoAnn Falletta, were more than equal partners, bringing to richly vibrant life the music being talked about by the characters.

The instrumentalists and chorus began by murmuring insistently, their hubbub turning into reiterations of “Salieri! Salieri!” When in the first act, Salieri described hearing Mozart’s music — the entrance of a soaring oboe, “and then the clarinet takes it away” — that music sprang up, instantly engaging the audience in what had spoken so eloquently to Salieri’s ear. And what music! — not mere snapshots but carefully chosen arias, choruses and instrumental marvels brilliantly performed, yet interwoven seamlessly with the onstage action, as when the Dies Irae underscored Salieri’s fateful challenge to God. Some of the play’s dialog had been skillfully redacted in order to move the plot smartly along and allow for the music to play its part fully.

The Symphony Chorus was seated behind the orchestra; when they rose to sing the great Kyrie, it was almost a startling surprise. The players themselves were in such close quarters that one could readily see why the strings needed to upbow at the same time, else carnage might have ensued.)

The sextet of soloists was equally remarkable, most notably Scott Williamson (Tamino’s impassioned aria), Amy Cofield Williamson’s impeccable brilliance and the terrific young bass, Liam Moran, who sang with richness and easy authority.

The production’s creative stage design included a raised, raked wooden platform with attractive parquet inlay, on which the story took place. A harpsichord upstage and a small table and chair downstage were all that was needed. On either side of the stage were short racks of costumes and wigs, to be donned by the actors as part of the action. The costumes were not only appropriate but moved well, not always an easy accomplishment. The effective lighting included an ornate chandelier high above the stage and, behind the orchestra, “window” panels that changed color, subtly underscoring the moods in the music and the play.

In this age when volume is pumped up to the point of pain, it should be noted that the unobtrusively miked singers and actors sounded clear, not deafening. That is extraordinarily rare, and reflects the care taken with every aspect of this production.

Virginia Arts Festival has its cast-of-thousands Tattoo, of course, but perhaps more importantly, the festival has become the year’s go-to deal for what Ed Sullivan used to call “a rilly big shew.” Last year’s brilliant production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was the most exciting music/theatre piece I have seen in this area, but I’ve only been here since 1963. This year’s Amadeus is right up there in the wow! Standings.

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