09 May 2015

New Ways to Listen to Weill’s Music

Road of Promise: Tokash, Rifkin, Sperling, Griffey, Delavan, Michelle (left to right), with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Collegiate Chorale. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy of the Collegiate Chorale.

One doesn’t often get the chance to attend performances of significant works by Kurt Weill in two different cities within a single week — but I managed the feat with a production of his Broadway hit Lady in the Dark at Lyric Stage in Irving, TX; and an oratorio adapted from his The Eternal Road, the night after its U.S. premiere at Carnegie Hall.

Lady in the Dark isn’t staged often enough: part of the problem, surely, lies in the Hollywood adaptation (starring Ginger Rogers, in 1944), which jettisoned most of the score and diminished the show’s fame. Another problem, though, is the show’s structure. We’re introduced to Liza Elliott, the high-powered but neurotic editor of a fashion magazine, in scenes of spoken dialogue (written by Moss Hart) that reflect old-fashioned ideas about psychoanalysis and women’s roles. It’s tricky material. The music is presented entirely in three through-composed dream sequences and a bit of flashback — and because it’s from the pens of Weill and Ira Gershwin (in his first collaboration after George’s death), it also demands performers at the peak of their powers.

Seen May 1, Lyric’s production upheld musical standards without fail, and music director Jay Dias presented the complete score with the full original orchestrations (a hallmark of this company). This then was an exceptionally rare opportunity to hear Weill’s score as he intended, and Lyric fielded sterling instrumentalists and a cast entirely comfortable with the vocal material. Fresh lyric voices hoisted the jazzy yet almost operetta-ish numbers with style and apparent ease — but as actors, only a few seemed to catch the wit and energy that guided this show’s creators.

Lady in the Dark: Lutz and Appleby.

Indeed, Ann Nieman’s production seemed altogether too polite for a piece that was — and in many ways still is — revolutionary in its approach to Broadway conventions and forms. Very rarely did any of the cast seem to be having much fun, and the greatest casualty in this regard was the perfectly capable Ryan Appleby as Russell Paxton, a variation on a “nance” role that made Danny Kaye a star overnight in 1941. Presumably out of respect for the more enlightened sensibilities of 2015, Nieman and Appleby miscalculated, giving us a Russell who was restrained, mostly levelheaded, and possibly heterosexual. Appleby sang wonderfully, but because his Russell was no longer a flamboyant stereotype, he had no character left to play.

Mercifully, Janelle Lutz played Liza with absolute authority, alternating aloof rigidity with (when called for) a Rita Hayworth strut absolutely perfect for the period in which Lady is set. Honestly, I didn’t think anybody still knew how to walk in a gown like that; somewhere Tex Avery’s Wolfie must be whistling for her. She underplayed Liza’s sense of humor in the dialogue scenes, and I’d have liked to see her find a few more opportunities to cut loose in the music; “The Saga of Jenny” ended just as she was really warming to it. But she’s terrifically attractive, with a lovely lyric voice, and I’d love to see her as Weill’s Venus, where the character’s playfulness is plainer to see on the page.

The evening’s other standouts were Conor Guzmán and Lois S. Hart. As one of Liza’s suitors, a Hollywood hunk, Guzmán had a grand time poking fun at his own handsomeness, and Hart built in strength over the evening as Liza’s wisecracking but sympathetic best friend. Sets and costumes by Cornelius Parker and Drenda Lewis generally — but not always — looked more ingenious than inexpensive, and the Glamour Dream in Act I proved quite effective visually.

To a degree, Liza’s trouble — “She’s afraid to compete as a woman” — is less potentially wince-inducing to modern audiences than is Billy Bigelow’s penchant for hitting his wife. As a result, some of us have great difficulty enjoying Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, which I saw April 19 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, in Rob Ashford’s production. Yet Carousel has advantages, starting with the fact that so many people already have seen it or even performed it in any of the innumerable productions that pop up around the country all the time. Chicago brought in expert Broadway players Stephen Pasquale, Laura Osnes, and Charlotte d’Amboise, while mezzo Denyce Graves made this her first professional appearance in a musical, opening a new page in her repertory and winning the admiration of a matinée audience largely composed of high-schoolers. As Julie, Osnes might have showed more gumption without stealing the thunder of Jenn Gambatese (a winning Carrie Pipperidge), but really, nobody onstage or in the pit seemed unsure what to do in a Rodgers & Hammerstein show. This is America, after all. We get this. Most of us even forgive Billy.

Carousel: Osnes and Pasquale.

Rodgers’ score (gorgeously played by the Lyric orchestra under David Chase) is openhearted, sincere, slightly sappy at times and also strange and mystical at others — but Billy’s “Soliloquy” sets forth the character’s contradictions and fundamentally good intentions to a degree that redeems him in our eyes. We start to root for him, and continue to do so for all of Act II. In Lady in the Dark, Weill is sassier and more cynical, and in his orchestration we hear more winking winds and sneering brass than the sort of lush and embracing strings that Rodgers deploys so effectively. Only Lady’s poignant “My Ship” approaches anything resembling Rodgers-style emotion, but Liza has to unpack much of her psychological baggage before we hear it whole — and it’s a child’s song, a fairy tale, not something real to which Liza aspires, as Billy aspires to fatherhood.

Consequently, I’m not surprised that the French premiere of Lady in the Dark — in Lyon, in 2008 — more successfully captured the show’s spirit than did the Texas production. The French have little experience of any Broadway tradition, apart from what they’ve seen in Hollywood movies, so they can toy with the form as merrily as they do with almost any part of American culture. In a sense, then, the Lyonnais approached Lady as Weill approached Broadway: “Let’s see how we can use this to our own satisfaction.”*

Weill’s debut in New York was something else altogether, one of the rare glimpses he left us of the importance of his Jewish heritage, the epic Eternal Road. Yes, there were klezmer harmonies and liturgical motifs running through a lot of his work, but this time he set stories from the Torah — and all the while, he was running from the Nazis, absorbing French and American music, and continuing the eternal evolution of his style.

Lady in the Dark, Théâtre de la Renaissance and Opéra de Lyon, with Tina May (center) as Liza, 2008.

Ed Harsh has adapted The Eternal Road as an oratorio, using an alternate translation of the original German title, Der Weg der Verheißung: The Road of Promise. Reducing the piece from six hours to two, and reducing the speaking roles to three (from G*d knows how many), certainly places this music within the grasp of many more producing organizations than ever could have possibly attempted it before — which is to say none, since the premiere in 1937. In many respects, The Road of Promise now feels like an oratorio, but it doesn’t often sound like one, and the comparison is telling between this score and Weill’s cantata Der Lindberghflug, which shows so much of Bach’s influence. In The Road of Promise I heard lots and lots of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Second Symphony, works that immediately preceded Eternal Road — but I didn’t hear much Bach. The reason seems clear enough: Weill wrote this piece as a fully staged drama, and he used a particular, very different musical language toward that end.

Weill’s music for the stage is a very fine thing, of course, and at Carnegie Hall on May 7, I got my first opportunity to hear more than isolated songs from this score. In correspondence with his publishers, Weill always bragged that he’d discovered “an entirely new style” in just about every piece that he wrote, but The Road of Promise does afford even a Weill devotee the thrill of discovery — notably in the choral writing. An ecstatic section in “The Building of the Temple,” for example, sounds like nothing else I’ve heard from this composer, and as delivered by the mighty forces of the Collegiate Chorale, the effect was overwhelming.

Elsewhere one heard echoes of Fauré (of all people) and the German Romantics, with hints at the Broadway lights that beckoned to Weill already. For a story so big, encompassing so many generations, the composer seems to have opted for as many styles as he could manage. This means the score is particularly demanding of its orchestra and conductor, but Ted Sperling’s own career spans so many styles that he seemed unfazed, drawing more flavorful playing from the Orchestra of St. Luke’s than I’ve heard from the Met Orchestra in Mahagonny — for example.

Road of Promise: Anthony Dean Griffey as the Rabbi. Photo by Erin Baiano, courtesy of the Collegiate Chorale.

As in the original work, The Road of Promise finds Jews seeking shelter in a synagogue during a pogrom in an unnamed European country. A 13-year-old Boy (Eli Tokash, actor) joins the congregation, but he knows nothing of the faith: his father, an assimilationist, has cut him off from his roots. Patiently, the Rabbi (Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor) gives him a crash course in Jewish history, interspersed by the cynical objections of the Adversary (Ron Rifkin, actor) — whose attitude can be summed up as, “G*d, stop doing the Jews so many favors!” At one point, the Boy objects, asking whether the Jews would be better off worshipping idols. “It worked out well enough for the Egyptians,” the Adversary replies tartly.

Sporting a handsomely patriarchal beard for the occasion, Griffey fielded most of the solo singing and quite a lot of the acting. The sweetness and utter clarity of his tone remain a marvel, and though much of his music is lightly accompanied at most, he offered the best English diction of any singer onstage. While Sperling displayed admirable sensitivity to the rest of the company, words were often lost, and I regretted that only the lyrics to some choral sections were projected over the stage (as part of Wendall K. Harrington’s series of projections, mostly showing Biblical scenes from 17th- and 18th-century paintings).

Most of the other singers performed multiple roles, with baritones Mark Delavan wonderfully affecting as Abraham and Moses, and Philip Cutlip particularly incisive as Solomon. Tenor AJ Glueckert fielded many, many roles, and though it was sometimes hard to know who he was supposed to be, his heat and passion contrasted effectively with Griffey’s calm authority — and with the tenor of an unseen fellow who sang the Voice of G*d and who, though billed as “Anonymous,” revealed many of the traits of Ian Bostridge to my ears. Women get shorter shrift here — as they do in the Bible, after all — but soprano Lauren Michelle and mezzo Megan Marino acquitted themselves with grace as Rachel and Naomi (Michelle) and Miriam and Ruth (Marino). Bass-baritone Justin Hopkins made the stentorian most of his appearance as the Dark Angel. (Really, his wings were almost visible.)

The Road of Promise ends with its Jews banished, a fate that once seemed easy when compared with the Shoah that followed the original production. Today, with headlines from Europe and America reminding us that anti-Semitism is hardly ancient history, the piece seems perhaps more relevant than it did even 15 years ago. Thus the oratorio — a concentration of music manageable not only to producers and performers but also to audiences — may serve a worthy purpose beyond Carnegie Hall, whether or not it’s precisely what the composer had in mind. Though I’m admittedly a Weill fanatic, this much seems inarguable: we need more of his music, more than ever.

Kurt Weill.

*NOTE: I reviewed the Lyonnais Lady in the Dark for the Kurt Weill Newsletter (begins on page 20 of the pdf) and for Opera News (but you have to have a subscription to access the magazine’s archive, so I’m not posting a link).

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01 May 2015

Interview: Justin Hopkins on ‘The Road of Promise’

Bass-baritone Justin Hopkins.

Among the cast of the Collegiate Chorale’s upcoming U.S. premiere of Kurt Weill’s The Road of Promise, the name Justin Hopkins stands out. The bass-baritone will sing the role of the Dark Angel next week, and I first encountered him at Fort Worth Opera, in Glass’ Hydrogen Jukebox, in 2011, where he displayed a commanding voice, keen musicality, and the skill to deliver a long, emotional monologue — spoken, not sung — with more power than most stage actors his age could muster. To The Road of Promise Hopkins brings a couple of credentials that should serve him well: he’s a former winner of the Lotte Lenya Competition, sharing second place in 2012; and as a veteran of the Philadelphia Boys Choir, he knows his way around big choral works.

“I would not have had a career in music without my experience with the Boys Choir,” Hopkins said. “Number one, it established my love and appreciation for the music that I’m singing today.” He points to Britten’s War Requiem, which he’s just sung for the first time as a baritone soloist — but which was the first piece he performed with the Boys Choir, when he was nine years old. With the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, the Requiem made an impression, and Hopkins remembers being “astonished at the size and scope of this piece, and how it moved things.” He bought a recording of the piece and listened to it “over and over, while my friends were listening to God knows what. The fact that I performed the War Requiem all those years ago informed my performance this year.”

Hopkins also credits the choir’s director, Robert G. Hamilton, for instilling in him the discipline he’s needed to pursue a career in music, lessons he sums up as “You needed to be in constant focus and attention, but you needed to be passionate. I’ve taken that with me, and that informs my drive and my passion for performing today.” The choir also influenced Hopkins’ musical aesthetics. “Dr. Hamilton was in constant search of contemporary composers at the forefront of choral music,” Hopkins says, and the Boys Choir performed a wide-ranging repertory that embraced classical and modern works, as well as show tunes. “I had a great balance of new and old music from a young age,” Hopkins says, and this steered him toward an “ability to — not to grasp but just to engage in both forms.”

That said, modern and contemporary works often address subjects that are more immediate and accessible to him. He cites the War Requiem, which incorporates Wilfred Owen’s poetry from World War I and recalls World War II, in which Hopkins’ grandfather fought; Hydrogen Jukebox takes on a variety of contemporary politics and mores. Hopkins’ upcoming engagement, the world premiere of Jeremy Howard Beck’s The Long Walk at Opera Saratoga, tells of a soldier’s return home from the war in Iraq. These themes offer “an easier or more direct route to identify with the music” and help “to conjure up the emotional relationship” more than is sometimes true of older pieces.

In Hydrogen Jukebox.
Fort Worth Opera, 2011. Photo by Ron T. Ennis.

The Road of Promise offers a modern look at ancient stories, since Weill’s librettist, Franz Werfel, uses tales from the Bible to respond to the persecution of Jews under the Nazis. Hopkins grew up in Mount Airy, Pennsylvania, an exceptionally integrated community where he had Jewish friends (“I attended a lot of bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs”) and tried to learn more about their heritage. Discovering the horrifying history of the Shoah, he could on some level relate that legacy to the African–American experience of slavery and diaspora, he says, locating “a common bond … of racism and oppression.” Now he points to the “great sense of kinship and brotherhood between the two communities,” especially during the early years of the civil rights movement. “The relationship of African–Americans and Jewish–Americans in the United States is very important… I’m actually sad to see that the relationship doesn’t exist as much as it did in the past.”

Kurt Weill himself wrote one of the principal artistic works reflecting the solidarity between Jews and blacks in the 1940s, Lost in the Stars, his final work for Broadway. A protest against South African racism, Lost in the Stars, held a clear message for America, and in 1950, the original production couldn’t go on national tour because it was impossible to secure lodging for black cast members. “It wasn’t that long ago,” Hopkins observes, and now the show’s title number has entered his repertory. “It resonates with audiences much in the way that ‘Ol’ Man River’ does,” he says. “He got it, Kurt Weill — and Kern and Hammerstein — they understood the plight of the community which they were writing about.” And because The Road of Promise incorporates stories that are a part of Hopkins’ own faith, “I feel as if I am able to relate to it on an emotional level that much more.”

For The Road of Promise, Hopkins will be working with conductor Ted Sperling, whom he admires as a performer and as a role model of sorts. “He’s so fluent in so many genres,” and Hopkins would like to see his own career follow a similar path. “I love opera, very obviously, and I love oratorio, in concert performances. I love drama … and I would love to be regarded as a versatile performer who seems as at home on the opera stage as he does on the concert platform and in the musical theater and on the theatrical stage. I’d love to be a jack-of-all-trades, because I love it all. Given the opportunity, I have something unique to offer in each of those areas.” He’ll get no argument from me.

Collegiate Chorale presents
Kurt Weill’s The Road of Promise
Carnegie Hall
May 6 at 8:00
May 7 at 7:00
Click HERE for information and tickets.

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