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Buried Treasure

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
10/04/1998 -  
Kurt Weill: The Eternal Road (Acts III & IV)
Elizabeth Batton (Ruth), Peter Kazaras (The Rabbi), William Burden (David), Kurt Ollman (The Dark Angel), Reginald Pindell (Boaz), Arthur Woodley (Saul), Victor Ledbetter (Jeremiah)
Concert Chorale of New York
American Symphony Orchestra, Leon Botstein (conductor)

Meyer Weisgal, a producer of outdoor pageants, contacted Max Reinhardt in 1934 about the possibility of collaborating on a large theatrical work depicting Jewish Biblical history. Reinhardt hired the novelist Franz Werfel and the composer Kurt Weill and the three, meeting at the palace of the Archbishop of Salzburg (with its view of Berchtesgaden), hammered out the final version of The Eternal Road. After considering London for the premiere, the trio decided on New York, where Weisgal began to gut Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House for the first performance of this monumental music drama. However, the project ran out of money and was not resurrected until January of 1937. The much anticipated world premiere ran seven hours. The first two acts went off very well, but the third act and the part of the fourth that was performed that night were disasters. However, the next day the critics raved about the new work, since they had all left after the second act in order to meet their deadlines! Reinhardt immediately cut the third and fourth acts and the pageant had a healthy run but was never again performed in America.

Enter Leon Botstein. A man who has made a successful second career (he is President of Bard College) as a conductor that champions forgotten works of music, Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra have put together a production of all of the excised material from the original opera. The third act has not been heard in New York since 1937 and tonight was the first ever hearing of the reorchestrated fourth act. For many years Botstein has presented the "unjustly obscure" (his phrase) in fine concert performances. He is also the originator of "theme programming", that is expressing a connection between the works of music on a concert program. This is now commonplace orchestral practice, but the concept was developed at the American Symphony in the 1980's.

The opera was presented in a semi-staged production directed by Jonathan Eaton. Having all of the characters on the stage with the orchestra suggested the source of Weill's musical inspiration, the St. Matthew Passion of Bach. Peter Kazaras as The Rabbi narrates the Biblical stories in the style of Bach's Evangelist and carried off Weill's authentic cantillation (Weill's father was a cantor) and melisma very effectively. Interspersed with the music are actors who portray a congregation in 1935 hiding in their synagogue as an unnamed king threatens to exterminate them. The Rabbi consoles his flock with the uplifting story of Ruth and toughens them with the tale of David and Bathsheba in Act III and warns them to be vigilant with the story of Jeremiah in Act IV. The tale ends with the then pessimistic but in retrospect innocently optimistic expulsion of the congregation from the kingdom. They must again travel down The Eternal Road (actually a literal translation of the German is an even more optimistic The Road of Promise).

Reginald Pindell as Boaz had by far the strongest voice in the company. William Burden was a complete David, making the transformation from the musical hero of the battle with Goliath to the lecherous murderer of Uriah, the inconvenient husband of his mistress. Kurt Ollman was authoritative as The Dark Angel while Arthur Woodley was a tortured Saul, beset with hallucinations and doubts. Elizabeth Batton was a lyrical Ruth, possessing a rich contralto able to project over the orchestra despite often singing from their midst. The orchestra was extremely well prepared by Botstein and they particularly stood out during the interludes. The building of the Temple is a marvelous send-up of the Nibelheim music of Das Rheingold, transposed into an upbeat major key so that the industry seems inspiring rather than dehumanizing. The music as a whole is vintage Weill, a polyglot of tangos, tarantellas, quotes from Schumann symphonies and that signature acerbic style mixed in this case with the music of the Hebrew liturgy. The semi-staging worked very effectively, with characters emerging from the audience or shouting from the highest balconies (Avery Fisher has many places to hide) and the actors staring off into the distance like Cassandra in The Trojans whenever there was a cataclysmic event.

But the real stars of the evening were the members of the chorus. Directed by Andrew Megill, the Concert Chorale of New York made this evening memorable. The religious feel of the piece is really carried off by the chorus and I did observe several people moved to tears at the endings of each act. The whole of The Eternal Road is planned for Cincinnati in the Weill centennial year of 2000 and based on this fine performance, I think I'll go.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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