Weill 'Lost in the Stars'
One year after becoming General Director of the New York City Opera, I launched the first of several seasons devoted to ‘American’ Operas. Kurt Weil was one composer whose works were critical to the popularity and success of those seasons. Originally written for Broadway, Lost in the Stars seemed to me to be an important work of music theatre. Now more than three decades later it strikes me even more as a composition of great depth, deceptively couched in simple settings. Like the music the drama has lost none of its desperate urgency in the intervening years. The recording sessions for this disc were somewhat akin to a religious experience. I hope the passions of Lost in the Stars will move you as deeply as they have me.
Julius Rudel, Conductor
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Lost in the Stars is Weill’s last completed work. It was based on the novel, Cry the Beloved Country by the South African writer, Alan Paton (1903-1988) and represents a very speedy adaptation, since Paton’s book was only published in 1948. Yet by the following year Weill and his librettist, Maxwell Anderson (1888-1959), had written the musical, which opened on Broadway in October 1949, where the original production ran for 273 performances.
In brief, the story concerns Stephen Kumalo, an African pastor, serving in a South African country parish, whose son, Absalom, has gone off to find work and a better life in Johannesburg. There he meets Irina, who conceives their child, but he also falls in with some less suitable male company and with these men he takes part in a burglary, during the course of which a white man – ironically, a campaigner for racial equality in Paton’s novel - is killed. When Stephen, unaware of these events, arrives in Johannesburg to search for his son he eventually finds the pregnant Irina and then locates his son, who is in jail, awaiting trial.
Inevitably Absalom is found guilty and sentenced to death. Not only are father and son reconciled but Stephen realises Irina’s worth. He marries the couple in jail so that their child will have Absalom’s name, and then takes Irina back to the family home and his parish where she is taken into the family’s care before the death sentence on Absalom is carried out.
This is emphatically not a conventional subject for a Broadway musical – like the earlier groundbreaking Showboat, which addressed the issue of miscegenation, it tackles a tough subject but it’s much more gritty than Jerome Kern’s great show. As David Kilroy observes in his excellent note, Lost in the Stars created in 1949 “a musico-dramatic parable of a new social order for an American public floundering with its own racial prejudices in the immediate postwar era.” In fact, in many ways it takes us back to the world of Weill’s collaborations with Bertolt Brecht. For example, there are some similarities in the musical styles. The scoring is for a small ensemble of some sixteen players and quite often the instrumental writing is pungent in a way that recalls those Brecht shows.
Lost in the Stars was Weill’s last completed work and it’s a fine creation, its quality emphasised by this excellent performance. We only get the musical numbers together with some of the spoken dialogue but the story line is not compromised.
The musical invention is strong; there are several memorable numbers in the show. The best of them fall to the character of Stephen and, in a strong cast, Arthur Woodley is one of the best performers of all. He has a fine, firm voice. His tone is consistently strong and round and his diction is excellent – though the libretto is printed it’s almost superfluous since all the cast enunciate very clearly. Woodley brings dignity and intensity to the role and among the highlights of the entire performance are his renditions of ‘Little Gray House’ and the title song. He also gives an excellent account of the emotionally charged soliloquy, ‘O Tixo, Tixo, Help Me!’ in Act II.
The other principal character is Irina, Absalom’s girlfriend. Cynthia Clarey gives a strong account of Irina’s music, singing ‘Stay Well’ expressively and delivering the touching ‘Trouble Man’ with real feeling. My one reservation is that her voice is a big, mature instrument and it might be thought rather too heavy to suggest a young, frightened and vulnerable girl.
Also impressive is Gregory Hopkins as the Leader of the chorus. He has a ringing, pliant tenor voice, which serves the opening number ‘The Hills of Ixopo’ very well. Even better is the ardent song, ‘Cry the Beloved Country’. Incidentally, great trouble has evidently been taken to ensure authentic pronunciation by all the cast; an adviser from the South African embassy, Tuli Demikude, was retained specially for this purpose.
The chorus and orchestra are very fine indeed, bringing out all the tension and bite in Weill’s score but providing the right emotional charge. Julius Rudel directs proceedings with evident commitment to the score. The rhythms are kept tight and the memorable tunes flow most convincingly.
The recorded sound is perhaps a little close but not in any troubling way. Indeed, there’s rather a feel of the performance being mounted in a small theatre. Perhaps, though, that feeling is more down to the dramatic flair of this performance. The work clearly matters a great deal to Rudel, who says in a brief introductory comment that he regards it as “a composition of great depth, deceptively couched in simple settings.” That belief in the score shines through in his fine, dramatic reading.
Originally made for the MusicMasters catalogue, it’s excellent news that the recording has now been reissued by Nimbus. All admirers of Kurt Weill will want to add it to their collections but it should be heard by anyone interested in the unique art-form that is the American MusicalRECORD OF THE MONTH John Quinn, Musicweb-international.com
Weill’s Lost in the Stars probes a racial theme touching on issues still unresolved. It seethes with violence and pain yet softens the tissue with sentimentality. It's no surprise that composer and librettist faced tribulations during the McCarthy era. Perhaps the sting of the piece was moderated by the distant locale of South Africa but it's a wonder that its initial countrywide tour in the States was not more controversial.The piece is an example of music-theater falling between opera and musical. It moves without a gulp from spoken word into song and back. The libretto is by Weill's friend and professional associate the writer Maxwell Anderson. Based on Alan Paton's novel “Cry, The Beloved Country”, the action is set in Ndotsheni and Johannesburg in South Africa. The idiom is along much the same meridian as Copland's The Tender Land and Burgess's The Blooms of Dublin. The format resembles Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Pacific Overtures. The singers selected for this project are strangers to the blowsy opera world. What we hear are select voices from the best of the show-singer ranks. Good to see that the 15-strong orchestra includes such fine musicians as the trumpeter, Chris Gekker (familiar from various Hovhaness projects) and Clarinet/Sax, William Blount.
There's no dissonance. The writing is melodic with plenty of contrapuntal interest - try the train rhythms in Go Train to Johannesburg. The orchestral tissue is given added savour by the discreet demotic presence of accordion. OK the writing is mildly sentimental but nothing mortally sticky. The melodies of the highlight songs are distinctively Weill with a natural harking back to the songs of Mahaggony and Dreigroschenoper. There are jazzy rhythms and a sprinkle of saxophone vinegar. Weill also delivers “down and dirty” sleaze as in “Who'll buy” (tr.8). The harp speaks purity and then romance in “Trouble Man”. Effects are included – a gunshot in “Murder in Parkwood” a track that underlines one of Sondheim's sources of inspiration in the asylum scene in Sweeney Todd. Weill however does what Sondheim would never do – at least not in his more mature works - in writing the occasional deeply sentimental aside (tr. 12). The first of the two acts ends with a calming orchestral entr'acte. Make no mistake there’s some powerful stuff here as in Stephen's scorchingly disillusioned O Tixo Tixo. Even so, later in the song the music becomes almost Delian and warmly laved – perhaps a touch cloying in Stay well sung by Irina. The Leader sings affectingly the deeply passionate Cry the Beloved Country at tr. 18 as a sort of Greek chorus with the choir.
Big Mole has elements of jocularity necessary to offset a very powerful and frightening song as Absalom faces death by hanging. The tension built by the chiming-ticking until the dreaded hour is reached (marked by a tolling bell) approaches the unbearable. A Bird of Passage reminds us of Delius in Koanga and in the Florida Suite as do several of the other tracks. It even drifts into Sing Something Simple and Mike Sammes territory.
The final chorus is a sweetened dénouement but the words are well pitched and sung out:-Each lives alone in a world of dark Crossing the skies in a lonely arc Save when love leaps out like a leaping spark Over thousands, thousands of miles.
Everything is just right.
Rob Barnett, Musicweb-international.com