Weill and Anderson: Lost in the Stars

BBC Concert Orchestra, Rowe/Hazelwood

Queen Elizabeth Hall, 26 June 2009 4 stars

Edward PetherbridgeLost in the Stars ('49) was the last stage work Kurt Weill was to complete before his untimely death in 1950. Typically for the composer the piece is something of a curio in the context of Broadway musical theatre of the late 1940s. Subtitled 'a musical tragedy', it takes an extremely difficult subject ― the onset of apartheid in South Africa ― and treats it with a great degree of maturity, and artistry too.

Based on Cry, thy beloved country by Alan Paton, with book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson (Weill's previous collaborator on Knickerbocker Holiday), the music is typical of Weill in its mixture of vernacular idioms such as blues or spirituals with operatic arias and choruses, Tin Pan Alley style songs, and even some chorales. Though the styles sometimes donít gel as well as they might, and the choruses risk being somewhat portentous at times, Weillís acerbic orchestrations for chamber orchestra (with no violins and including accordion), his spirited melodic sense, and his skill at sensitively contextualising and qualifying the drama in the music means that Anderson's often poetic language and the compelling drama of the narrative are communicated strongly.

In this quite unique fully-staged production at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Charles Hazelwood led the 14-strong chamber orchestra (made up of members from the BBC Concert Orchestra) and 40-strong chorus in a rousing rendition of the score. Owing to the restrictions of the space, the action took place at stage front, beside the orchestra, with good use of scaffolding above and alongside the stage enabling choruses to stand out both acoustically and dramatically, and the judge in the courtroom scene to have a sufficiently elevated bearing. The director Jude Kelly made good use of the space; with limited room to manoeuvre it is to her credit that the production rarely felt inert.

The importance of the chorus in this work is quite startling for a Broadway piece; quite often significant emotional aspects of the play are first voiced by the chorus, and at crucial points key dramatic gestures, such as the now-quiescent and poignant reminiscence of the earlier forthright 'Lost in the Stars' melody in the final scene, are heard through the chorus. Those choruses had real dramatic heft in this performance. Though the mix of voice-types (popular, operatic, musical theatre) in the solos of the opening 'The Hills of Ixopo' did not augur well, as it turned out each of the choruses was given with a concentrated purpose and a real sense of the intensity of the narrative.

Clive RoweThey balanced well with the small instrumental ensemble, whose shifting colours added a sustained layer of dramatic thickening to the show. The muted trumpet in the closing stages of the first and second acts, and the nimble wind players who swapped skilfully between clarinets, oboes, bass clarinets and saxophones, all stood out in strong and versatile playing that was as comfortable in slurred lines and bluesy harmonies ('Who'll Buy?'), as it was in flowing dramatic accompaniments ('O Tixo, Tixo, Help Me!', 'Cry, thy beloved country'), or hard-edged dance numbers ('Train to Johannesburg').

The cast was generally strong. Josie Benson as Linda ramped up the fizz with her raunchy rendition of the brass-led 'Who'll Buy?', whilst Tsakane Maswanganyi was sombre and pent-up as Irina (though her emotions were let out strikingly in her aria 'Trouble Man'). Cornelius Macarthy as Abselom Kumalo provided a moving portrayal of decency led astray, whilst the rest of the ensemble cast displayed real chemistry and esprit in their hectic movements about the stage.

Clive Rowe as the central character Stephen Kumalo was a dignified and affecting presence. He remained a steadfast figure at the centre of the drama as his increasingly doomed search for his son Absalom, who had a year previously travelled from their rural home to Johannesburg in order to finance his education, but had fallen into a cycle of violence and crime (as foreshadowed brilliantly in 'Train to Johannesburg', with its refrain of 'white man go to Johannesburg, he come back, black man go to Johannesburg, donít come back'), moves through tragedy to a sort of final redemption. His singing was expressive, though at times his intonation felt a little sluggish, and he had a habit of jumping ahead of the beat. However his rendition of íLost In the Starsí at the close of the first act was a highpoint of the show; he brought real grandeur, intelligence and candour to the existential despair of the lyrics.

The drama somewhat takes over from the music in the second act. A shift into more actorly melodrama is required, albeit with decisive interjections from the chorus, something negotiated with skill here. Rowe as Kumalo developed a deeply moving relationship with James Jarvis, a crucial non-singing role here portrayed by Edward Petherbridge with a depth of emotional characterisation that lifted the second act to the high standards of the music-rich first. Their relationship rang entirely true thanks to the humanity brought to bear by both actors. It seemed impossible initially (Jarvis' prejudices against the black community seeming to have been confirmed by his son's murder by Abselom), but their rapprochement felt inevitable and vivid at the close following Jarvis' acceptance of his son's egalitarian attitude, and his recognition of the nobility of Stephen Kumalo.

Lost in the Stars illuminates some aspects of the human experience that lay at the centre of the tragedy of apartheid by treating both sides with generosity of spirit, and by maintaining a certain astuteness in the face of human nature (to whit, Stephen's response to a query of what he'd say to the charge of large scale cruelty from the whites in South Africa: 'all men have evil in their hearts'). Weill's music blends effectively with the drama, enhancing it, without ever smothering its finer points. This production managed to carry forth to its audience much of this character. The moving conclusion aroused much emotion in the hall.

By Stephen Graham

Photos: Edward Petherbridge and Clive Rowe

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