‘The Cradle Will Rock’ Returns With Its Brazen Politics Intact

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While the opera was in development, Blitzstein shared “The Nickel Under Your Foot,” a prostitute’s showstopping song about the power of money, with the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who responded: What about the other “prostitutes” in society? (At the top of the finished score, Blitzstein wrote, “To Bert Brecht.”)

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Mr. Blitzstein at the piano during the 1937 premiere performance of “The Cradle Will Rock,” a stripped-down staging after a last-minute move to another theater.

Credit
Kurt Weill Foundation for Music

Musically, the opera is indebted to Kurt Weill, Brecht’s collaborator on similar works, including “The Threepenny Opera” and “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” (Weill, after the premiere of “Cradle,” was said to have quipped about it, “Have you seen my latest musical?”)

Howard Pollack, a professor at the University of Houston and author of the 2012 biography “Marc Blitzstein: His Life, His Work, His World,” said that the success of the premiere has, over the years, encouraged people to recreate it. “The dramatic events probably helped make this premiere a legend, but it’s kind of obscured the original intention,” Mr. Pollack said.

Lawrence Edelson, Opera Saratoga’s artistic director and the director of the new “Cradle” staging, said that the premiere has “actually overshadowed what the piece itself is.”

For this production, Mr. Edelson said, he wanted to return to the original plans for “Cradle”: scenery, costumes and Blitzstein’s full orchestration, which hasn’t been heard in the United States since 1960. But as he studied the work, he saw themes that spoke both to liberals and Trump supporters. “People don’t need to be left-leaning politically to see something that resonates with themselves with this piece,” he said. “It hits a nerve. It’s inherently part of the DNA of our society.”

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Opera Saratoga will be staging “The Cradle Will Rock” 80 years after its storied debut.

Credit
Gary David Gold

It would be easy — too easy — to update “Cradle” with a Mr. Mister resembling Mr. Trump, Mr. Edelson said. “I don’t think we need to hit the audience over the head,” he added. In fact, his earliest inspiration to stage the opera came not from Mr. Trump’s presidency, but during the primary season debates between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, which exposed the problem of “how the wealthier people within society are able to assert power and control through wealth,” Mr. Edelson said.

By setting his production in the 1930s, Mr. Edelson plans to let the allegory speak for itself. Mr. Mauceri, for his part, said the opera’s ideas would be more clearly delivered with the full, original score. (A commercial recording, the first ever with Blitzstein’s orchestration, will be made from the coming performances.)

The fashionable way of performing “Cradle” with a solo piano, Mr. Mauceri said, “homogenizes everything.” With more instruments, he added, references to Weill are more evident. Mr. Pollack said that the orchestration brings out the score’s riches, including street theater sounds that create a Brechtian distancing effect.

Mr. Pollack added, “Can you imagine ‘La Bohème’ performed with just a piano?”

That the solo piano version of “Cradle” has persisted over the orchestrated score is, from a musicological perspective, an unfortunate side of effect of the opera’s premiere. But that performance also gave rise to Welles’s formative Mercury Theater, and a longtime friendship with Blitzstein.

As it happens, Mercury Theater’s first production, for which Blitzstein wrote the incidental music, was a provocative adaptation of “Julius Caesar” in 1937. World War II wasn’t far off, and this Caesar bore a striking resemblance to Benito Mussolini.

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