Last August 24 and 25, Fire Island music lovers enjoyed the second annual Fire Island Opera Festival presentation of the East Coast premiere of Kurt Weill’s first opera, “Der Protagonist” (1926), to Georg Kaiser’s libretto, in English translation by Lionel Salter, at the Pavilion in Fire Island Pines. Less than a week later, I received the announcement of the Collegiate Chorale’s 2014-2015 season, set to conclude with more Kurt Weill, a new concert adaptation, by Ed Harsh, of Weill and Franz Werfel’s sprawling Biblical epic music theatre work “The Road to Promise,” originally entitled “Der Weg der Verheissung” (“The Eternal Road,” 1937), at Carnegie Hall on May 6 and 7. The two Weill works, I found, had a singer in common, fine mezzo-soprano Megan Marino, who played a sultry siren in “Protagonist” and will be Moses’ sister Miriam, a part originated by Lotte Lenya, and Ruth in “Road to Promise.”
“The Eternal Road,” which theatre historian Edward J. Bronner, in his “Encyclopedia of American Theatre 1900-1975,” called “a pageant of Jewish history in Old Testament style,” “one of the costliest failures in Broadway history,” and a “morality pageant [which] has perhaps never been equaled for sheer scenic splendor,” opened at Oscar Hammerstein I’s specially-renovated Manhattan Opera House, on West 34th Street, on January 7, 1937, in director Max Reinhardt’s production, with Norman Bel Geddes’ “magnificent” five-tier set, culminating in a depiction of “the very portals of Heaven itself,” his lighting, and his 1,172 costumes for “a cast of Cecil B. De Mille proportions that included Sam Jaffe, Lotte Lenya, Sidney Lumet, Kurt Kasznar, and a small army of supers” (supernumeraries), among the 245 actors.
Weill, the son of cantor and composer of Jewish liturgical music Albert Weill, began writing the music for “the Jewish oratorio” (Donald Spoto in “Lotte Lenya: A Life”) in 1933, while living in Paris, in hopes of a production at London’s Royal Albert Hall, which proved unable to accommodate “the lavish and complicated staging Reinhardt intended,” so, in anticipation of starting over in New York, Weill and Lenya set sail from France on September 4, 1935, arriving here six days later.
The “dramatic oratorio” (Mario R. Mercado, “Kurt Weill’s Biblical History of the Jews,” New York Times, October 4, 1998) begins in a synagogue in an unspecified city, where the Jews have been told they must leave by sunrise or be executed. “The Rabbi tries to comfort his congregation by retelling Biblical stories, from the calling of Abraham, which introduces the musical motifs of the Promise of the Road, to the destruction of the First Temple” (David Schiff, “On the Road Toward Hope: Kurt Weill’s Celebration of the Jews,” New York Times, February 27, 2000.) Among those gathered at the synagogue is a young boy of Bar Mitzvah age, originally played by Lumet, who knows little of Jewish history, heritage, or faith, until he hears the Rabbi recounting the tales of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Miriam and Moses, Ruth and Naomi, David and Bathsheba, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, which “soloists and chorus enact.”
On its first night at the Manhattan Opera House, “The Eternal Road,” performed in Ludwig Lewisohn and William A Drake’s adaptation of Werfel’s text, stretched on until 2 or 3 a.m. and many reviewers left before its final acts to meet their deadlines. Notices were positive, however. Brooks Atkinson wrote, in the New York Times, that it is Weill’s “triumphant score that gives [‘Eternal Road’] enormous emotional vitality” and an unnamed Times colleague described it as “perhaps the first indoor theatrical event ever to justify the cinematic adjectives Stupendous and Colossal.” Burns Mantle called it “staggering,” in the Daily News, terming it “the most expansive of [Weill’s] creations to date … a spectacle to end spectacles.” To John Mason Brown, in the New York Post, it was “the stage spectacle of all stage spectacles” (Spoto, “Lotte Lenya: A Life”). Though the work, which “had been the catalyst for [Weill’s] invitation to America,” consistently played to full houses, the half-million dollar production, plagued by increasing deficits, was obliged to close on May 17 after 152 performances.
A Musica Sacra concert, during a Kurt Weill Festival, at Merkin Concert Hall in September 1987, under Richard Westenburg’s baton, included the “Dance around the Golden Calf” and “Solomon’s Hymn of Praise” from “The Eternal Road.” Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra in a concert adaptation of Acts Three and Four, billed as “Kings and Prophecies: A Road to Promise,” staged by Jonathan Eaton, at Avery Fisher Hall, in October 1998. And conductor John Mauceri brought Germany’s Chemnitz Opera to Brooklyn Academy of Music for half a dozen staged German-language performances, from February 28 to March 5, 2000, in a co-production by Chemnitz Opera, BAM, Tel Aviv’s New Israeli Opera, and Poland’s Opera Krakow, adapted by Gerhard Müller, directed by Michael Heinicke, and designed by David Sharir.
“Because Weill had been forced to flee, he decided to use his musical style for ‘The Eternal Road’ as a means of saying goodbye to Germany,” Mauceri told the Times’ David Schiff, adding, “He did so by making reference to the great German ecclesiastical works. So you’re never too far from Bach or Handel. There are also references to ‘Don Giovanni,’ Verdi’s ‘Nabucco,’ Wagner’s ‘Parsifal,’ Schubert lieder, Mahler,” and double choruses and fugues, not usually associated with Weill. “And yet it is always Weill. There’s the African rhythm he loved so much, the tom-toms, the use of a solo trombone, the quirky orchestration that becomes his signature. The musical journey is both a compendium of the past and a fundamentally radiant vision of the future.”
In the Collegiate Chorale’s eagerly anticipated upcoming performances of “The Road of Promise,” Tony® Award-winning conductor and Artistic Director Ted Sperling—who won for his orchestrations for Adam Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza,” which he also conducted—will guide tenors Anthony Dean Griffey and AJ Glueckert, baritones Mark Delavan and Philip Cutlip, Lotte Lenya Competition Winners or Finalists soprano Lauren Michelle, mezzo Marino, and baritone Justin Hopkins, the 200 singers of the Chorale, and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s. Video projections are by Wendall Harrington and lighting design by Frances Aaronson. The performances are funded in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, Inc., and have been endorsed by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which the Chorale will honor in its spring benefit. Prior to the May 7 hearing, Maestro Sperling will speak with Harsh, President and CEO of New Music USA and Managing Editor of the Kurt Weill Edition, about the music and history of the work. The Museum of Jewish Heritage is co-sponsoring this pre-concert talk.
Tickets for the May 6 at 8 p.m. and May 7 at 7 p.m. performances, the latter preceded by the 6 p.m. talk, are available for $30 to $135 at www.carnegiehall.org
, CarnegieCharge at 212/247-7800, or the box office at 881 7th Avenue at 57th Street. For further information, visit http://collegiatechorale.org/peformances/the-road-of-promise