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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Recordings Review: A Show For Our Troubled Times

Opera Saratoga unleashes The Cradle Will Rock.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The cast of Opera Saratoga's searing new recording of The Cradle Will Rock.
Image © Opera Saratoga and Bridge Classics.
There is no show in the history of New York theater with a more troubled history than The Cradle Will Rock. This hybrid between serious drama, operetta and musical comedy was written in 1937 by composer Marc Blitzstein, only to run smack dab into government bureaucracy, anti-Communist paranoia and union regulations that conspired to kybosh its planned first performance at the Maxine Eliot Theater. (The show had been sponsored by the Federal Theater and the Works Progress Administration, but the theater was padlocked four days before the scheduled premiere.) Mr. Blitzstein took the show, its actors and singers twenty-one blocks  uptown to the Phoenix Theater. There, he led the performances from a stage piano as actors, sitting in the house, sung out their parts on cue.

That incident inspired the 1999 Tim Robbins film Cradle Will Rock and also established a sort of performance tradition for this thorny musical. (It was mounted in the 20th century by Orson Welles and later by the New York City Opera but it has never really entered the repertory.)  However, this new recording, made in 2017 at Opera Saratoga and released earlier this month on Bridge Classics, is a redemption for the show in its original form. This is a live record of a fully staged performance and the first one to use Mr. Blitzstein's original orchestrations. It reveals the composer drawing on both the post-Romantic tradition and possessing a similar ear for a good tune to his contemporaries Kurt Weill and George Gershwin. The show is mostly sung, and presents a mix of trad jazz tunes and irresistible melody, with certain songs remaining in the listener's head for days.

It is the plot of Cradle that caused so much controversy to swirl around the show in 1937. In a fictional Steeltown U.S.A., the arrest of Moll, a prostitute takes the listener into the city's night court. This bleak background sets the stage for a confrontation between town boss Mr. Mister, his lickspittle Liberty Committee, and the brash union organizer Larry Foreman. No resolution is reached, but the show promises that the worker has rights that are far more important than the greed of the bosses.

Along the way, the libretto (by the composer) skewers town government, organized religion, the duality of American hypocrisy and capitalism. There is something of a debt to Brecht's Mahagonny with a much stronger focus on politics. Satiric figures like Mr. Mister, the Reverend Salvation, Dr. Specialist, the local college president Prexy make big, fat targets for Blitzstein's biting pen. The only characters with any decency or morality are Larry Foreman and Moll herself, who is thrown in jail only when she refuses to pay a bribe.

There is no overture. The first sound you hear is Moll (Ginger Costa-Jackson) singing over woodwinds and plucked harp. Ms. Costa-Jackson's mezzo soprano laments over muted, rising chorales in the brass and the slow harp figure, which evokes the first movement of Mahler's Ninth. The piano shifts the work into jazz mode with playful stabs in the brass and strings as Moll flirts with a john (Andy Papas) wanting to pay thirty cents for her services. The music rises in strength and passion as the two argue and Moll gets arrested by an interfering cop (Efraín Solís.) The cop establishes the existence of violence and regular union conflicts in Steeltown, and the total corruption of the police. The score uses slick tango rhythms to capture the stress between Molly and Dick, and the tension builds and drives forward.

It turns out that the Liberty Committee has been thrown in jail for the "crime" of listening to Larry Foreman making a speech. The performance shifts into high comedy at this point, and the tunes come thick and fast. "Croon-spoon" is swiftly followed by  "The Freedom of the Press", which shows the close control by Mr. Mister over the media. It owes something to "La calunia" from Il Barbiere di Siviglia with the memorable phrase "some news can be order." "Let's do something" is an ode to feckless youth, with soprano Heather Jones and tenor Spencer Viator singing over a fast Charleston beat.

Moll reopens the shorter second act with the best tune in the show: "The Nickel Under Your Foot." This is a cutting indictment of America and capitalism that builds into a sad and angry climax over a slow march. Then Larry Foreman (Christopher Burchett) enters, the hero in the middle of this corrupt situation. It is his duty to sing the title song of the show, a dark and stern warning to those in power. It rises with proud wings above the orchestration riding Mr. Burchett's baritone to its climactic, titular phrase. 

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