There's lots to enjoy in this supremely ambitious revival at the Young Vic of an opera created in 1947 by composer Kurt Weill, lyricist Langston Hughes and playwright Elmer Rice. If it doesn't entirely work, that's the fault of the original show, not of this co-production by the Young Vic and The Opera Group, originally created at the Watford Palace. With a cast of classically trained opera singers, backed up by dozens of primary and secondary school children and an offstage chorus, and with the BBC Concert Orchestra stacked on two levels at the back of the stage, the creative effort behind this production is truly mind-boggling.
Following very closely Rice's 1929 play of the same name charting the lives of several immigrant families living in the same building on New York's Lower East Side, it's described as an American Opera in two acts. It shares some characteristics of the all-American musical genre, but parts company in the second act, which lacks any glimmer of a happy ending. The fact that it lacks the exhilarating buzz of the Young Vic's revival of Langston Hughes' Simply Heavenly in 2003, which was in many ways a similar ensemble piece, has something to do with the fact that it's a bit of hybrid. I love Weill's music, especially the edgy products of his collaboration with Brecht before he left Germany, but I wonder if he was ever completely at home writing in the American idiom. The main flaw seems to me to be that it sticks far too closely to Rice's original play, rather than building up a truly operatic intensity by sacrificing some of the minor characters. Time and again the central story of the Maurrant family and their neighbours the Kaplans breaks off for a detour into the destiny of other residents. I'm no expert on musical theatre or opera, but what the greatest works have in common is a tight focus on a limited number of characters. Think of Tosca or Evgeny Onegin, or Otello. Much the same is true in musicals, where secondary characters have brief cameo appearances but then fade back into the chorus. Rose Maurrant, superbly sung by Susanna Hurrell, is the key character but doesn't appear on stage until the audience has had the chance to meet everyone else at length. Characters tend to sing dialogue to each other rather than opening their hearts to the audience so that we feel we know them better than their own families do.
The show has brief flashes of Sondheim-style brilliance, and the staging by John Fulljames and designer Dick Bird can't be faulted, but I can't help feeling that this remains a realist melodrama set to music which never delivers the knockout emotional punch of a real opera.