Marie Galante, libretto by Jacques Deval, music by Kurt Weill. Directed by Jean-Philippe Clarac & Olivier Deloeuil.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
I wait for a ship that's coming to me...
composer, Kurt Weill, ca. 1933
If you were born into a theatrically aware family, as I was in the mid-1940s, you are from birth practically one with the music of Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and Frederick Lowe. Kurt Weill is different; he is an acquired taste, less accessible, less pertinent in many ways. However, once you come to grips with his music you can never be separated from it. With a limited number of scores from which to choose you learn quickly to identify his particular orchestral scoring, his melodic structures and if you take the time to really listen, to read the music, you realize that the American Musical Theater Weill is not all that different from the German Musical Theater Weill. "Dreigroschenoper" is not as set apart from "Street Scene" as you might at first believe. "Lady in the Dark" is not separately conceived from a work such as "The Czar Has His Photograph Taken." The composer’s years in France, though, do present some interesting challenges.
From March of 1933 until September of 1935 his work was centered around his life in Paris where, as a German exile, he worked in three languages on a diverse group of compositions including his Second Symphony, a ballet - The Seven Deadly Sins - with Bertolt Brecht, an operetta Der Kuhhandel with Robert Vambery (first in German, then in English), a radio ballad La grande complainte de Fantômas, Franz Werfel’s Der Weg der Verheissung (first in German and then in the English version by Ludwig Lewisohn) several songs and Marie Galante (with two songs in Spanish), the work making its American premiere in a production by the Opera Francais New York at the French Institute in Manhattan.
Based on his own novel, Jacques Deval constructed a lengthy play which needed songs and incidental music. Weill had been contracted to collaborate on the project but it was not happening and when the production was finally announced he had only three weeks in which to create and orchestrate the music. Not a success on the Paris stage, a folio of the songs was published by Heugel containing seven of the fifteen pieces he had composed in that short time. Several of them were based on music he had written in Germany for his play Happy End. Ultimately five of the pieces would become standards in the Weill repertoire, recorded and sung often.
For Opéra Français’ new production the book has been somewhat rewritten but still follows the basic story of Marie, an orphan with no real history, on her accidental journey from the waterfront in Bordeaux to the piers of Panama. A prostitute by need, she maintains a purer soul than most, even nursing a dying old black man with the few dollars she has saved for her return journey to France. Along the way she meets sailors, thieves, lesbians, corrupt American officials, disconnected French officials, a Japanese spy and one or two nice men who are principally blacks who work the docks in Panama. For her trouble and misfortune, for attempting to live as good a life as she possibly can live, she is murdered before she can achieve her goal. No laughing matter this libretto. Even in depression-era Paris this must have been a difficult script to swallow.
On the other hand the music is charming, French in a Weill way, orchestrated for accordion and orchestra with plenty of Gallic touches in the scoring. There are child-like ballads, erotic tangos, moody spirituals, a comic march and songs with a folk-song feeling to them. A former instrumental, later rewritten with a lyric, is used in its song form and becomes a remarkably evocative duet for two female voices. The score is very much of the sort that Weill would later write in New York for his Broadway shows. It still rings of his German theater roots, however, with a hard, harsh tone coming through even the simplest ballads. This is a richness that deserves the full treatment, a complete recording - CD or DVD - to expose Weill’s complexity and his originality. There have been recordings of "suites" of Marie Galante music, always with a single voice but the presentation here shows how much more perfect the work is when sung by the correct character voices.
The cast in Manhattan is wonderful. Michael Zegarski as the owner of a Parisian boutique in Panama is divine. He begins as a dapper ne’er-do-well who sings "Complainte de la Seine" a number not written for this show but which works well in this spot. Zegarski’s Staub then begins a downward spiral in Panama society and ends up with the difficult and dirty ‘Yo le dije al Caporal" in which he explodes with repressed lusts and madness as the slave of twin Panamian girls.
Robert Mack is the Spiritual soloist who takes the haunting "Le train du ciel" to exalted heights and Dillon McCartney as the harbor drunk makes the most out of "Les Filles de Bordeaux."
Likewise Grant Neale does a nice job with the short, unaccompanied solo "Je ne suis pas un ange."
As the Panamian sisters Soledad and Mercedes Inês Lucas and Mimi Hirt are delightfully wicked. Both of their songs are nicely delivered and Susan Moses is frighteningly Brechtian as their mother Señora Tapia.
In non-singing roles, for the most part, Jack Wallace is fascinating as Crawbett, the American with secrets, Will Badgett is heart-warming as ancient Josiah and Jun Kin is a deviously smart Tsamatsui.
The two women who play Marie and her friend and lover Poldine are absolutely wonderful. With the possible exception of Theresa Stratas on her early recordings of Marie Galante material, Isabel Bayrakdarian is the best voice I’ve heard song these songs. As the leading lady of a musical her voice is not really heard until the end of the Act One when she sings "J’attends un navire" the biggest hit from this show. In this new edition, though, she gets to duet with Ariana Chris in the sensuous tango-duet "Youkali" just before her first big solo. Chris is later heard in the plaintive and moving "Je ne t’aime pas" - another interpolation into the score. Both women have beautiful and expressive voices and these songs are well-placed with them. Bayrakdarian also sings "Le Roi d’Aquitaine," and "Le Grand Lustucru." In truth there isn’t enough music for Marie in this show and that may have always been a problem.
In a musical show you want to get to know the principal characters through their music and here that happens late in the piece. There is also no clear picture of any of the men, musically, who matter to the main story, the story set in Panama. Staub is the only one who really gets to sing and he is practically the villain, or if not that then certainly the "other story’s" main character.
The play is performed in English, by the way, with the songs in French aided - NOT - by surtitles. Opening night those titles always started late and often didn’t seem to match the lyrics being sung. That, and a few distinct light cues miscalled, were the only technical glitches in a production that solves some of the script’s problems but not all of them. The production design by Carol Bailey cleverly used a single set to be all of the places the script required. A few transitions were awkward, particularly when there was no music to cover the change. Rick Martin did a beautiful job with his subtle and often mysteriously dark stage lighting.
The concept and the movement worked out by the co-directors Jean-Philippe Clarac & Olivier Deloeuil was quite wonderful. A bit more time would have helped in the development of characters, but that was partially excusable as a large company paraded through the adequate stage set-up at Florence Gould Hall. The fifteen piece orchestra under the very able direction of conductor Yves Abel presented Weill’s music almost flawlessly and the new orchestrations of the additional pieces in the score provided by Matthew Scott blended into Weill’s own sound extremely well if not seamlessly. Scott uses a simplistic form of adding instruments over a single piano, for example, which might or might not have been the way Weill would have gone with his plaintive ballad. That is was not a glaring new sound was a tribute to Scott’s understanding of the composer’s intentions and his efforts to find a new French sound while still writing with his former German style.
The opportunity to see a work like this one, never done here before, and to experience what a French audience may have had in their hands back in 1934, made ten hours of travel and an $89 ticket absolutely worth Weill.