Premiered on Broadway in 1947, Kurt Weill’s ‘American opera’ drew on a Pulitzer-winning play that sought to depict realistically the interconnected lives of a group of families in a Manhattan tenement. Moving back and forth between opera and musical – sometimes skilfully, sometimes awkwardly – it has never become a repertoire piece.
With some 30 named parts and a storyline that tries to include too much, the ambitious result feels long and uneven.
That said, Opera North does its very best by it, with too many fine individual performances to namecheck them all in a focused staging by Matthew Eberhardt that makes the best possible case for the piece.
Francis O’Connor’s multi-level set suggests the not always comfortable proximity of melting-pot family groups of diverse and sometimes mixed extractions – Italian, German, Jewish and Scandinavian among them – with Howard Hudson’s lighting directing the audience’s gaze to the detail of an enterprise in which every contribution makes its mark.
Among the leads, Giselle Allen is luminous as desperate, caring Anna Maurrant, having an affair with the local milkman Steve Sankey (Paul Gibson) whose consequences are fatal for them both. Robert Hayward brings a degree of empathy to Anna’s bullying husband Frank.
Gillene Butterfield suggests the aspirational qualities of their daughter Rose, adored by bookish neighbour Sam Kaplan, to whom Weill gives one of the show’s best songs in Lonely House, which Alex Banfield voices in a silvery tenor.
With a company founded on Opera North’s chorus and regular guest artists, this is an exceptional ensemble production, with Weill specialist conductor James Holmes ensuring the highest musical values.