No-expense-spared Weill at City Opera

THe Kurt Weill revival forges on. This season has seen the Metropolitan opera's first production of "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany." Now the New York city Opera has mounted a reconstruction of a lesser-known work from the early '30s, "Silbersee" or, as translated for this production, "silverlake."

No expense has been spared on the effort. Harold Prince and much of his Broadway team have been involved. Former music director Julius Rudel conducts. Broadwayfamed Joel Grey stars. And the cast features some of its strongest character singers and actors.

The original Georg Kaiser book has been heavily adapted by Hugh Wheeler. The story, doubtless, remains the same, but the text has been modernized and redone to make it more acceptable to today's audiences (implying that Kaiser was too specifically '30s German in its social criticism and somewhat dated in prose style). Music from Weill's "Gustav III'" has been added to flesh out the opera and smooth some edges.

It is hard to get a real handle on the actual merits of the work. Weill's music is characteristic of his European period -- a few devastating songs and tunes, much small-band repeated-pattern accompaniments, or vamping, and rather long stretches that do not amount to much. The best moment in the show is "Caesar's Death" -- a vintage Weill tune, forceful, savage, dripping with irony. There is a forceful number for one of the leads, Severin, "There is no forgiving , there is no forgetting."

The story concerns that Severin, a member of the band of poor who inhabit Silverlake. He is shot by Olim (Mr. Grey) while trying to steal a pineapple. Olim wins the million-dollar lottery and tries guiltily to buy back Severin's favor, though the latter does not know Olim is his attacker.

Through the innocent love of Fennimore for both Olim and Severin, a reconciliation occurs -- love proves stronger than hate -- and she brings them back to Silverlake, where she walks on the water, a miracle that heralds a new beginning for all.

The moral is obvious -- money cannot buy happiness or love, that without true love, nothing in this world has real substance or meaning. But how heavily it is trowelled on, and to what slender results. The tedium factor in this evening at the City Opera is not as profoundly numbing as the Met's "Mahogonny" (which will be back next season), but neither work really convinces as a whole, some wonderful moments aside.

But City Opera did all it could. Prince's production has a very Broadway look to it, which is fine, though it seems too complex a production to sustain and maintain in a repertory theater. The core of Manuel Lutgenhorst's sets is a series of mirror-like panels that are manually slid here and there, with odd bits of furniture and props to flesh out any given scene. The Silverlake, upon which Fennimore walks, is a very tiny puddle of silverized plastic sheeting that is given the semblance of waves with forced air.

Ken Billington's involved lighting came off with few hitches opening night. The Larry Fuller choreography for dancer Gary Chryst as Hunger (who meets his doom when Fennimore saves all), is not particularly imaginative, but chryst dances it very well indeed. And in the pit, Rudel lavished all the love, care, and energy to make this score come to life. Clearly he is a dedicated advocate, though the product itself fails him too often.

On stage, every last singer is amplified in true Broadway tradition -- a most ominous event for an opera house. Even if it is important to hear all these words (and one doubts Mr. Grey could have managed without it), it is just as important to hear them in other operas. It should be up to the singers to work at projection and not have to rely on mikes.

No matter how impressive the production, this critic finds the European Weill far less compelling and interesting than the American Weill, who was represented at the City Opera this past fall with "Street Scene," which gives a far better sense of the composer's craftsmanship and melodic creativity. 'Manon'

The City Opera's "Manon" still charm as as production, despite some touches that now seem merely tacky and pointless. With John Mauceri in the pit, the orchestral contributions of the most recent revival was in good musical hands.

On stage, newcomer David Arnold did not look well in his makeup, but sang De Bretigny with a good sense of French style, and just the right pointed, resonant timbre for such music. As Manon, Glenys Fowles was singing with an indisposition, which probably accounted for a certain lack of presence in the higher notes. Hers is an imposing presence, too much so for the early scenes -- who will ever forget Beverly Sill's youthful innocence here? -- and for the most part, she really lacks the warmth needed for this opera. But moments here and there, especially her "Adieu," were superbly handled. Henry Price has staunched the startling erosion in his voice. Though the timbre is no longer right for this lyric, elegant music, and his acting tends to be nonmotivated, he at least can get through the role now with some sincerity and without running out of voice before the final scene.

What continues to affect City Opera performances of repertory staples is the generally inferior level of the supporting and comprimario roles. The three soubrettes were outlandishly overwrought. It is at this level that the company needs attention and work so that an evening at the City can have the ensemble effort look and feel that a house of this reputation and image must have.

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