Sylvia McNair powerful in Weill-filled "Songspiel" from American Opera Theater
A Kurt Weill song can't be mistaken for anything else. There's something tense in the warmest of his melodic lines, something pointed in the simplest of his harmonies. And that's even before you consider the words. Weill was inspired by some remarkable lyricists -- Bertolt Brecht, Ira Gershwin, Walter Mehring, Roger Fernay, Maurice Magre, Maxwell Anderson -- who found fresh ways of addressing the old issues of love and loss.
Out of some 17 Weill songs, American Opera Theater artistic director Timothy Nelson has fashioned an engrossing, even edgy new work called "Songspiel," which opened last weekend at the Theatre Project.
The music comes from such shows as "Happy End," "Mahagonny" and "Lost in the Stars" (the title song from that score isn't an entirely comfortable fit for "Songspiel"). Nelson also mined several of the stand-alone songs Weill wrote that were famously revived and revitalized by soprano Teresa Stratas on the 1981 recording "The Unknown Kurt Weill."
"Songspiel" is first and foremost a vehicle for another stellar soprano, Sylvia McNair, who originally signed on to perform Weill's "The Seven Deadly Sins." When that project had to be scrapped (the Weill Foundation's insistence on a full orchestra proved problematic for the small company), McNair stayed on and Nelson sought another way to capitalize on the possibility of presenting of one of America's most gifted and engaging vocal artists.
His concept for "Songspiel" involves a narrative about
The homeless woman, identified as Jenny I, has a history of bruising love affairs, drug abuse and prostitution. In flashback, that life is relived. Woven into this dark world are Jenny II and Johnny, who interact with or merely observe the central character.
If the concept of "Songspiel" doesn't always persuade, if the troubling issues raised by the show don't always get enough context, the result is nonetheless an evening of vivid theater, directed with an imaginative touch by Nelson.
I caught the show last Sunday evening and found McNair a riveting presence. She commanded attention from the start, wearing the rummaged-for clothes of a street person, shuffling onto Charles Nelson's artfully trash-littered set and heading toward a graffiti-splattered bus stop. The soprano's voice was in superb shape, the tone pure and beautiful, the diction crystalline, the phrasing full of nuance. Her delivery of "Surabaya Johnny," "My Ship," "How Much Longer" and "Nanna's Song" proved especially potent.
The supporting cast offered vivid acting. Rebecca Duren (Jenny II) did not always produce a tightly focused sound or articulate words carefully, but proved capable of considerable expressive flair. Todd Wieczorek (Johnny) used his mostly smooth baritone tellingly; some of his high, soft singing created an especially haunting effect. The combo of pianist Eileen Cornett, trumpeter Brent Finchbaugh and bassist Laura Ruas provided consistently stylish support for the show.
"Songspiel" has something substantive to say about all of us, particularly those troubled souls we would have rather not notice. I imagine Weill would have approved.
Two performances remain this weekend.
PHOTOS BY JESSE HELLMAN COURTESY OF AMERICAN OPERA THEATER