Classical CD Review: Best Opera Recording of the Year — Or is it Best Musical?

By Ralph P. Locke

None of the opera recordings I have reviewed this past year beats this Cradle for dramatic vitality, musical imagination, and ongoing political relevance.

The Cradle Will Rock, Marc Blitzstein.

Ginger Costa-Jackson (Moll), Nina Spinner (Ella Hammer), Keith Jameson (Harry Druggist), Christopher Burchett (Larry Foreman), Matt Boehler (Mr. Mister), Justin Hopkins (Reverend Salvation), among others. Opera Saratoga Orchestra, conducted by John Mauceri.

Bridge Records 9511 [2 CDs]—111 minutes, including the re-release of the composer reading his recollections about the first performance. Click here to purchase. The recording is also available on YouTube (divided into segments), on Spotify, and other online listening outlets.

One of the most famous opening-night performances in the history of American music theater occurred when, in 1937, the Federal Theatre Project suddenly withdrew permission for Marc Blitzstein’s pro-union musical or opera, The Cradle Will Rock, to be presented on stage. This politically motivated attack on artistic freedom, by a government agency, occurred the very day of the work’s scheduled premiere, and the cast and its brilliant director (Orson Welles) had to scurry around to find another theater and, on extremely short notice, a piano to move into it. The composer, seated on stage at that blessed upright piano, did his best to replace the originally intended orchestra (which was also forbidden to participate). The cast members sang their roles from different parts of the auditorium, thereby circumventing the letter of the ban. If this story sounds familiar, you may have seen the 1999 film based closely on these events, starring Hank Azaria, Susan Sarandon, Bill Murray, and other notables and entitled Cradle Will Rock (without The).

Now is your chance — everybody’s chance — to hear Blitzstein’s pathbreaking stage work in its entirety, with almost every word of the original spoken dialogue. (To be precise, two words have been sensibly updated for comprehensibility.) And, equally important, the recording uses the original 1937 orchestration. Many Cradle performances during the intervening eight decades have used a piano instead, partly in homage to the 1937 events but surely sometimes to keep costs down.

I have reviewed over thirty opera recordings this past year for American Record Guide and for several online sites, but I can confidently declare that none of them beats this new recording of Cradle for dramatic vitality, musical imagination, and ongoing political relevance. I will not linger on the latter point: I will simply say that the point of Blitzstein’s show, or opera or whatever it is — Blitzstein called it “a play in music” — is that what we today would call the “one percent” use their financial clout to make life cushier for themselves while engaging in measures that do the rest of us in (e.g., nowadays, by poisoning the environment, by suppressing the vote, by reducing funding for public education, and by making healthcare less affordable for people who are most in need).

Blitzstein (1905-64) was a brilliant composer who also could write an engaging, tightly structured libretto. Of course, other composers — such as Wagner, Berlioz, Berg, and Menotti —  have written their own librettos and some Broadway composers — Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim — have penned their song texts (though not the dialogue scenes). Still, this shows the classy company that Blitzstein and his works kept and keep!

The musical numbers in Cradle range widely in style and “density.” Many are light parodies of different song-types, or even of specific songs that would have been well known to audiences (and performers) at the time. Somebody should make a list of these. I noticed a clear allusion to the opening of Arthur Pryor’s wildly popular instrumental number The Whistler and His Dog (ca. 1913) in the opening phrase of Harry Druggist’s song (“It Looks Like Summer Weather”). Phrases closely similar to ones from Lutheran chorales (such as Bach used in his cantatas) are intoned unctuously by Reverend Salvation. Other song-types that crop up in delightful ways include a sappy young-love number for Junior and Sister (complete with moon/June/spoon/croon rhymes), a college fight song in the Faculty Room scene, and a dark protest-tango for the Moll (prostitute).

These song-types are often treated with modernistic distortion and irony, e.g., sudden shifts in mode or key. A phrase may end a measure early, lurching us forward to the next phrase. The dissonance level can be high, despite relatively tuneful melodic lines. And purely orchestral passages can become quite grim and intense.

I was particularly fascinated by stretches of melodrama (spoken dialogue with orchestral underscoring, as in a film or certain musicals, such as Show Boat and, later, South Pacific and West Side Story) and by passages in which multiple characters on stage speak together in rhythmic unison. There are fascinating orchestrational decisions, including exquisite choices of single percussion (rapping on a woodblock, or slow brushing on what I take to be a snare drum) for specific dramatic moments.

The recording blends elements from multiple staged performances that took place in July 2017 at Opera Saratoga (in the Spa Little Theater). The sound quality is remarkably clear and well balanced. I was able to catch the singers’ words a good 90% of the time, better than with many recordings made under more controlled (i.e., studio) conditions. We hear laughter from the audience, and excited applause (probably trimmed by the editors, which was wise) after some musical numbers. Much praise to the youngish cast, the stage director (Lawrence Edelson), and the conductor (John Mauceri, renowned for his efforts on behalf of Bernstein’s theater works).

Standouts among the vocalists are Ginger Costa-Jackson (a mezzo with a major career in roles such as Carmen), Nina Spinner, Keith Jameson, Christopher Burchett, Matt Boehler, and Justin Hopkins. Remarkably, Spinner was at the time a member of Opera Saratoga’s Young Artist Program, as were over two dozen other singers here. They all sound fully professional and make a gorgeous noise when they join their voices in large-ensemble numbers. Three or four cast members get a bit carried away with the acting aspect of their roles: had the recording been made in studio sessions, those soloists might have been encouraged to tone things down just a little. But even this (relatively slight) excess of enthusiasm seems a natural result of devotion to the show and to its social and artistic messages. I hope that a video of the production can be made available. Composer and musicologist Leonard J. Lehrman wrote an informative and appreciative report about the production. And his insightful review of the CD recording is a worthy complement to the set’s excellent booklet essays by Howard Pollack and conductor Mauceri. (The booklet also contains the entire libretto.)

Marc Blitzstein and the 1937 cast of “The Cradle Will Rock.” Photo:

A wonderful feature of being able to listen multiple times to a recording is that one begins to notice the artistry with which the work was put together. Harry Druggist’s song, mentioned earlier, begins with a four-line stanza. The first line sets a naively hopeful tone typical of the Druggist himself (I say naïve because he will soon yield to pressure and become complicit in a murderous plot), the second line suggests that he may be Jewish or at least traditionally religious (“I swear I’d not trade places with King Solomon”), the third has been prepared by four lines of dialogue before the song starts (an interchange between Harry and his son Steve, who is helping out at Harry’s drugstore), and the fourth (“It certainly feels fine to own my shop”) turns out to be deeply ironic, because Harry will soon find out that he doesn’t truly own his drugstore: the mortgage is held by Mr. Mister, who thus can call the shots (in this case, he has his goons set off a deadly explosion to scare his factory’s workers, who are trying to unionize).

There have been superb recordings of individual numbers from Cradle before now, nearly all with piano rather than orchestra. I would urge anybody to seek out “Nickel under the Foot” sung by Evelyn Lear and the Hotel Lobby Sequence (including “The Rich” and “Art for Art’s Sake”) performed with panache by Roddy McDowell, Alvin Epstein, and Jane Connell. The original Spoken Arts LP that contained them can be found in many large libraries, and YouTube is currently streaming both items, preceded by Blitzstein’s grippingly told reminiscences of the opening night fiasco-cum-triumph. (The current CD release ends with this same fourteen-minute narration by Blitzstein, though without explaining its LP origin.)

Hats off to Bridge Records, which here adds to its distinguished list of opera recordings (and vocal recitals, series of George Crumb recordings, and so on). Among their notable offerings are Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, Hindemith’s The Long Christmas Dinner (in one act, to a touching libretto by Thornton Wilder), and Tod Machover’s astonishingly inventive Valis (based on the widely read science-fiction novel by Philip K. Dick). Music lovers nowadays owe such small record labels a debt of gratitude.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book.

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