In 1937, as the world moved closer to war, a young American Zionist named Meyer Weisgal wanted to put on a show. But not just any show. A spectacle with a cast of hundreds, a set that required the New York theater to take out its orchestra pit, and a composer and librettist who would mine the Torah to tell a story of adversity and triumph — the story of the Jewish people.
Called “The Eternal Road” (though sometimes translated from German as “The Road of Promise”), the production — part pageant, part opera, part spectacle, part polemic — ran for 153 performances, even though it clocked in at more than four hours. The composer, Kurt Weill, had already gained notoriety for his “Threepenny Opera.” “The Road of Promise” was no “Hamilton,” but it was very much a work for that moment — though not, perhaps — for ours.
Kristallnacht was a year away. Jews in Germany were getting uneasy, wrestling with whether to leave or stay for many were high acculturated and patriotic German citizens, according to Jewish history professor Marsha Rozenblit, during a pre-show talk Sunday at The University of Maryland.
The gargantuan production was meant not just to entertain but to raise awareness, and maybe funds, for the Zionist cause and to highlight the plight of the Jewish people. Then it disappeared. In 1999, the work returned to the German stage, and soon after Ed Harsh, a writer, composer and trustee of the Kurt Weill Foundation, reshaped the unwieldy production into an oratorio, editing out more than an hour of dialogue, music, the huge sets and attendant spectacle.
Sunday’s 2½-hour rendition of “The Road of Promise” opened the University of Maryland School of Music’s year-long Kurt Weill festival at The Clarice’s Gildenhorn Recital Hall.
Featuring a full orchestra, a 92-member chorus, altogether more than 200 students and alums, as well as principal singers from the university’s graduate Opera Studio program, the piece remains massive, both in its musicality and its dramatic material, drawn from biblical retellings of the patriarchs and matriarchs, set to Weill’s broadly dramatic score.
As a composer, Weill, who was trained in opera and classical composition, was a populist, a modernist, an avant-gardist. To today’s ear it sounds like a bit of all of Weill’s influences — think high-end 1940s movie music on steroids with a touch of cabaret, art songs and Broadway savoir faire. And if you listen closely enough, you may hear an inkling of Jewish liturgy — his father was a cantor.
The School of Music’s production, directed by Amanda Consol and conducted by Craig Kier, valiantly strives to breathe life into this reconsidered Weill work. The result? Uneven. At times it succeeds, most particularly in performances from the three principal cast members, who bring the dense storytelling alive.
Set in a synagogue where congregants have gathered during a long and restless night when danger reigns outside the sanctuary walls, The Rabbi (characters are allegorical types not fully drawn people) reads scripture, while The Adversary rails against faith and God. When The Thirteen-Year-Old, unschooled in his Jewish heritage enters, The Rabbi finds his strength and purpose in teaching this boy about the indomitable spirit of his people.
As The Rabbi, lyric tenor Yoni Rose, a graduate of the school of music and the Opera Studio, fulfills his role impeccably — a staunch yet caring leader, ready to protect his congregants. Rose, a Baltimore native, serves as a cantor in Frankfurt, Germany. As the boy, Noah Calderon provides the impetus for The Rabbi to continue in the face of impending doom. Calderon’s youthful demeanor, recalling the simple son from the Passover Haggadah, and his eager curiosity lend hope to what feels hopeless. And Washington actor John Lescault, sporting a bushy white beard, rages, flashing his contempt and defiance to the biblical accounts and moral precepts that span Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses Ruth, and Jeremiah. The night — and Weill’s road — are, indeed, long.
The evening, sung and played with gusto, is meant to make a case that “The Road of Promise” retains its relevance, musically and dramatically. Alas, even with Harsh’s massive cuts, the piece waxes and wanes and without movement — after all the original was as much pageantry as oratorio — it feels static.
The Kurt Weill Festival, which continues through April 2019, is part of the university’s “Year of Immigration,” a campus-wide initiative to examine immigration, global migration and refugees to encourage student reflection on the world beyond the campus. While the backstory of the Weill work is fascinating, including a complex collaborative team that included renowned theater director Max Reinhardt and set designer Norman Bel Geddes, who pulled out all the stops, it’s hard to envision how this piece might find a foothold outside an academic setting. Its unwieldy biblical narrative and musical grandeur doesn’t jive with our more edgy and inattentive times.