Peabody Opera takes big step with 'Street Scene'

Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Judging by two recent productions, the Peabody Institute is putting more resources into opera. It shows.

For the fifth year, Peabody Opera Theatre stepped outside the conservatory campus and headed a few blocks north to stage a work at the Lyric. This season's choice was ambitious and welcome -- Kurt Weill's richly detailed "Street Scene."

Whatever the weak spots in singing or acting, the venture seemed to me a significant advance for the company and the school. This was the second impressive effort in recent weeks that revealed Peabody pouring more resources into opera and getting fully professional production values in return.

Back in October, "On the Threshold of Winter" by Peabody faculty member Michael Hersch received a potent Baltimore premiere, theatrically imaginative and deftly executed at every turn. It was on a level that would have easily passed muster in New York. 

Last weekend, "Street Scene" looked terrific -- a multi-story set (Luke Cantarella), subtly lit (Douglas Nelson) and fleshed out with atmospheric projections that gave the text an extra boost at key moments; assured, vibrant stage direction (Kristine McIntyre, who also trimmed the spoken dialogue judiciously). No comparison to the bare-bones stagings Peabody Opera has previously offered at the Lyric.

The classy visuals helped enormously to serve this masterful look at the poorer side of American city life. Causing only a few little incongruities, the setting for the opera was changed in this case from New York to Baltimore, but the essence (and the 1940s time period) remained in place.

In "Street Scene," matters small and large consume the residents of a modest apartment building. The beauty of Elmer Rice's book, based on his play of the same name, is that each incident has meaning and resonates in some telling way. Likewise, the lyrics by Langston Hughes (Rice is credited with some of them) have a genuine ring.

Real folks, real situations, right down to a character who spouts off about immigrants: "Why the hell don't they go back where they came from?" Talk about a still-relevant opera.

Weill's genius was to give all of this an extra force. He uses as many musical styles as there are tenants -- Puccini-esque passages (the Act 1 love duet from "Madama Butterfly" seems to flutter over the piece a couple times) rub clefs easily with Broadway numbers and bursts of jazz. Yet, the eclectic score holds together magically.

Making the most of that score was the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, which maintained admirable technical polish and expressive force all night under the sensitive guidance of conductor Steven White.

Some years, Peabody Opera boasts lots of students who can sing in un-student-like fashion. That level wasn't plentiful in "Street Scene."

Still, the performance Friday night held rewards, among them: Rebecca Elizabeth Wood's lyrical passion as Rose; Michael Dodge's eloquent phrasing of "Lonely House" (too bad he lacked the tonal heft for the more emphatic moments in the opera); Shayna Jones' rich-voiced Anna; Fitzgerald St. Louis' smooth styling as Henry; and Andreas Moffett's firm, bright vocalism as cheery Mr. Fiorentino.

Few of the vocalists proved to be natural actors, but the drama emerged effectively enough. Moments of humor were delivered with particular snap.

All things considered, a "Street Scene" worth visiting.  

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