Weill Style

It's more and more obvious how necessary the American Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Leon Bot stein, are to New York's art-music life. While the New York Philharmonic launches its seasons with all the Brahms or Beethoven symphonies, and four-fifths of local opera repertories stick to the tried, true, and overdone, Botstein and his not always technically perfect crew constantly unearth fresh material from the past and near-present, making a case for provocative thematic programs. Take, for example, their October 4 season opener at Fisher Hall.

With the music and theater worlds bracing themselves for Kurt Weill's centennial in the year 2000, Botstein pulled off a revival of the second half of the legendary but silenced (for 60 years) spectacle known by its English title, The Eternal Road. This opera-pageant–epic drama, writ ten in German by Franz Werfel, was set to music by Weill, and staged by Max Reinhardt. The scenario concerns a Jewish congregation hiding in a European synagogue throughout the night and awaiting a tyrant's decision whether to kill or exile them. To keep their courage and historical awareness up, the rabbi tells them Biblical stories—Moses, Isaac, Miriam, Ruth, David, Saul, and various prophets. The congregation's fate becomes exile, but the authors wrote in ignorance of the Holocaust ahead. London was to have seen the world premiere, but plans fell through, and The Eternal Road, as it came to be and still is called, got its first and last complete performance at the Manhattan Opera House (now Manhattan Center) on January 4, 1937.

Why last? Because the opening night ran until 3 a.m. Although the show achieved a modest run before unprecedented weekly costs became too much to bear (300 singers and actors!), post-opening audiences went without the third and fourth acts. So it wasn't until this month that the entire second half of Road was per formed. It was worth the wait.

Peter Lazarus (with tallis) as the rabbi in Kurt Weill's Jewish opera-pageant-epic
Steve J. Sherman
Peter Lazarus (with tallis) as the rabbi in Kurt Weill's Jewish opera-pageant-epic

The missing or damaged parts of Weill's orchestrations were replaced by Noam Sheriff and Edward Harsh of New York's Kurt Weill Foundation. Jonathan Eaton shrewdly adapted Ludwig Lewisohn's original English translation and directed for economic but useful action within a concert for mat, using tallises, yarmulkes, and the occasional prop. Eaton also had the good idea to launch the otherwise nonmusical, 20th-century prologue with a brief chorus of thrilling shofar calls from all over the hall. And much of Weill's score was powerful and stuck to the ear and heart. Yes, there were familiar fingerprints: Ruth (meltingly sung and acted by Elizabeth Batton) devoted herself to Naomi (the touching Katherine Benfer) in a superbly extended sequence of Weill's vintage brand of beat-enforced blues. But the soul-sick Saul lay in his camp and visited the Witch of Endor to impressionistic dissonances tantalizingly off the beaten Weill track, and the composer often acknowledged musical history (principally Bach) by rousing us with baroque-type flourishes that might scatter any Jewish congregation.

Botstein organized the musical performance for the grand line with out obscuring many potent details. His rabbi was tenor Peter Kazaras, who managed the high range nicely and acted with easy authority. Another tenor, William Burden, shone in the lyric role of David. Standouts in the large cast were Arthur Woodley (Saul), Victor Ledbetter (Jeremiah), Kurt Ollmann (Dark Angel), and Kip Wilborn (Adversary). And Andrew Megill's Concert Chorale of New York went for impact, especially in Weill's setting of David and Bathsheba's grief over their child's death by quoting and richly expanding the traditional Kol Nidre chant. Maybe next year, these people could resurrect the first two acts of Road and record the whole shootin' match.

Pending a more detailed report on New York City Opera's ongoing ad ventures in fringe repertory (in this case, Handel and Gluck), let me urge you not to miss the company's new production of Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice in its almost never heard original version. Polish countertenor Artur Stefanowicz sings and acts the title role as expressively as it demands, achieving a pianissimo line that often eludes his type of singer. Amy Burton is a superb Euridice, Robin Blitch Wiper is a cute Cupid, and Derrick Inouye a proficient conductor. There's a caveat, however. The production by Martha Clarke, of whom I've long been a fan, is a mess, with dancers raincoated or unflatteringly nude clambering over a stageful of probably Styrofoam boulders. This is Orfeo on the rocks. I want it straight up.

 
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