I had a Jewish public high school music teacher, who cited such repertory as Verdi’s “Requiem” and Handel’s “Messiah” and posed the question, “Where are the great Jewish liturgical musical works?” and I’ve thought of that each time since, when I’ve encountered a work, by Salamone Rossi, say, that fills that bill. When I heard the Collegiate Chorale’s Carnegie Hall season finale, on May 6, Kurt Weill and Franz Werfel’s “Der Weg der Verheissung” (The Eternal Road), given in Ed Harsh’s concert adaptation as “The Road of Promise,” with English translations by Ludwig Lewisohn and William A. Drake, used in the 1937 premiere, and by Charles Alan and Kelley Rourke, and additional orchestration by Noam Sheriff, with Artistic Director Ted Sperling guiding the Chorale and Orchestra of St. Luke’s, my reaction was, “Eureka!”
This rare outing of Weill’s epic oratorio proved it a powerful work, stately, ceremonial, dramatic, and uplifting. In a synagogue in an unnamed city, where Jews are told to leave by morning or be executed, a Rabbi tells Bible stories to his congregation and, in particular, to a Bar Mitzvah-age boy, brought up outside of Jewish tradition, and with scant awareness of this heritage. Moses delivers a grand aria, in Verdian style, but it still sounds like Weill. The chorus sings a Handelian fugue and a Mendelssohnian hymn, but they’re unmistakably Weill. Call it “Mahagonny” without Brecht’s bitter irony.
Commandingly portrayed by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, the Rabbi serves as the narrator, linking the disparate Bible stories, while actor Ron Rifkin, as the Adversary, played the doubting outsider, the relentlessly questioning bad cop to Griffey’s good cop, filling the boy (Eli Tokash) with wonder, while also teaching him to think and query. We didn’t have Max Reinhardt and Norman Bel Geddes’ grandiose, Cecil B. De Mille-proportioned production, which may have been what tanked the original run after just over 150 performances, but Wendall K. Harrington’s projections, of evocative paintings and stained glass, sufficiently set the scenes here.
Baritone Mark Delavan cut a pair of strong figures as the Patriarch Abraham, who would sacrifice his son Isaac, and as Moses, lamenting that he would never be allowed to set foot in the Promised Land, but delivering a fervent a cappella prayer “Hear, o Israel,” the “Sh’ma Yisroel,” echoed by the Chorale. Mezzo-soprano Megan Marino, as Moses’ sister Miriam, a part created by Lotte Lenya, sang a lyrical narrative about Moses in the bulrushes and, as Ruth, had tender exchanges with soprano Lauren Michelle, as Naomi, and tenor AJ Glueckert as Boaz. Glueckert was also David, “the shepherd boy king,” lyrically psalm singing and sparring with baritone Justin Hopkins, as a dark angel, when he’d lusted after Bathsheba. Michelle, as Rachel, joined Glueckert, as Jacob, in a dramatic duet about their troubled relationship, and she and Marino added their radiant sounds to the climactic ensembles. Baritone Philip Cutlip, who was Joseph, sold by his brothers, and Solomon, bringing about the building of the Temple, also made a memorable Jeremiah, the harsh, condemning prophet, akin to Jokanaan in “Salome,” his ominous message ignored by Zedekiah in favor of Glueckert’s false prophet’s empty reassurances, leading to the destruction of the Temple. The work ended as it began, with horn calls reminiscent of the blowing of the shofar, and as the people scattered after the Temple fell, so was the Rabbi’s congregation forced into exile. An anonymous, unseen tenor, singing in head tone as the Voice of God, whose words were sometimes sung by the Chorale as well, soothed and calmed the people, telling them to have hope anew in the face of adversity. A particularly striking effort of the Chorale’s earlier was contributing a pious prayer and contrastingly savage, earthy cry of the idolaters, worshipping the Golden Calf, in quick succession.
“The Road of Promise” was slated for repetition the following night. Visit www.collegiatechorale.org
for information about the Chorale’s future plans.