Music theatre for radio: Menotti and Weill

Menotti and Kurt Weill – radio commissions of the inter-war years

Caprice Arts Trust (organiser: Sunniva Zoete-West): The Old Maid and the Thief (Menotti); Das Berliner Requiem and three songs (Kurt Weill)

Salvation Army Citadel, Friday 12 June

Caprice Arts exists to provide a platform for performance by independent professional musicians in the Wellington region, and to promote New Zealand and other contemporary music. They do not pay professional fees, and provide their own services gratis.

This evening included performances by two distinct groups. The common thread was their commissioning by radio stations in the Inter-war years.

Das Berliner Requiem was commissioned from Weill and Brecht in 1928 by Radio Frankfurt; The Old Maid and the Thief was commissioned from Gian-Carlo Menotti by the NBC in New York in April 1939.

Rather than follow the style of the production in Wellington by the De La Tour Opera in about 1977, when it was staged normally, the present production accepted the equally difficult task of staging the radio performance. The singers, in street clothes, stood to sing into microphones as appropriate, ignoring the audience, though they occasionally allowed themselves to act rather whole-heartedly as if there was an audience present.

The style of production was interestingly echoed in the following week-end’s opera from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, La Sonnambula, screened at the Penthouse cinema. That was conceived as a rehearsal in a New York studio of a production to be staged in Switzerland (the locale of Bellini’s opera) and we were to see the performances as if the singers had no audience before them; most were in casual street clothes, working in a plain rectangular rehearsal space. But normal audience-aware performances emerged at various times, and elements were staged with singers in costume. For example, Amina – the victim of the compromising sleepwalking incident – enacts both her sleepwalking appearances in costume.

So with The Old Maid, certain phases had singers performing in ways that would hardly have arisen in a real radio studio.

The Salvation Army Citadel provides an agreeable space for performances of this kind, but the acoustic is not always helpful; some voices were clearer than others but the combination of a sometimes too prominent piano and an acoustic that produced too many overtones often obscured words. And for performances of this kind, words were rather important.

The Menotti piece began informally as the singers came out haphazardly, making adjustments to equipment and seating, and the Announcer, Craig Beardsworth, finally calls them to order, “Come on people! We’re On Air” and opened the broadcast: “Caprice Arts Trust presents this live Radio broadcast of The Old Maid and the Thief”, to a lively piano Prelude, somewhat Bach-inflected with interesting contrapuntal lines.

The pianist, Jonathan Berkahn, did a fine job throughout, his playing full of character, varied in tone and rhythm, and good at giving emphasis to particular notes and motifs such as an orchestra might deliver.

The story is set in a small American town, in the house of the old maid, Miss Todd (Ruth Armishaw), a local busy-body, censorious and uncharitable. Her young and evidently lively young housemaid, Laetitia, is sung by Barbara Paterson. A vagrant, Bob (Kieran Rayner), referred to rather as a Wanderer, knocks on their door and Laetitia, finding him attractive, persuades her mistress to let him stay, and to remain, by suggesting that Bob is in love with her (Miss Todd).

But Miss Todd’s friend, Miss Pinkerton (Sharon Yearsley), her equal in pious nastiness, hears that a convict has escaped and they jump to the conclusion that it is their guest.

To help support their increased expenses, Miss Todd starts stealing from her neighbours and eventually from a liquor store (being too embarrassed to buy liquor openly in a post-prohibitionist environment).

It ends with Laetitia and Bob stripping the house and fleeing, leaving the mean-spirited Miss Todd with her come-uppance (nothing disagreeable seems to happen to the equally mean Miss Pinkerton).

The singers were uniformly well cast and very adequate to their tasks, apart from a lack of clarity in the higher voices. Barbara Paterson produced the most vivid performance, with impressive, high coloratura in her party-piece lamenting the timid man. Ruth Armishaw and Sharon Yearsley (mezzo and soprano respectively) made a convincing pair of self-obsessed, malicious small-town spinsters, though adopted American accents were a bit forces at times. Kieran Rayner’s velvet voice (and appearance) did his role proud, with a rollicking, drunken waltz song inspired by the stolen gin.

The production found a good balance between the studio setting and occasions when they let the mask slip, and acted; I would not have been deprived, for example, of Laetitia’s hilarious efforts to seduce Bob and the raid of the liquor store even created real suspense.

In the second half, all three female singers sang Kurt Weill – three very distinct songs in quite distinct modes: Yearsley in Mr Right from one of the Broadway pieces, Armishaw in Pirate Jenny from Threepenny Opera and Paterson in the French cabaret song Youkali, with Berkahn on the piano accordion this time. All characterized with brilliant stylistic flair.

The evening ended with Weill’s dark, gritty Das Berliner Requiem to poems of Bertolt Brecht for three male singers – tenor Laurence Walls, baritone Craig Beardsworth and bass Matt Painter, plus a largish wind ensemble including saxophones, guitar and organ, conducted by Justus Rozemond. Even in the late 20s it still aroused nervousness in Germany and Weill had difficulties getting it performed; only one performance was broadcast, in May 1929.

Laurence Walls read translations of Brecht’s unsentimental, violent poems that Weill set. It starts and finishes however, with hymn-like movements in a late medieval character. In between were four sections that moved between sombre, stark musical settings, and quiet, tender parts. The elegiac second part is accompanied by guitar, while there’s a tenor solo in third section, accompanied by saxophone and clarinet in a bluesy waltz-time piece that’s touching, said to be a tribute to Rosa Luxemburg, The fourth and fifth sections comment on the unknown soldier offering no hope of an after life, with emphatic timpani strikes. Craig Beardsworth alone sang the fifth section with its organ accompaniment, to more expressive, sympathetic music to which his voice was very well suited.

The whole evening was a credit to the professionalism of the Caprice Arts Trust and the musical direction by Jonathan Berkahn and Justus Rozamond; it is an assembly that operates on the slenderest means but achieves much through the generosity of all concerned. They bring to Wellington music that is off the beaten track but very much worth knowing.

Two other performances took place in Plimmerton and Lower Hutt.

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