Heavenly Hash

Usually things get lost in translation, but the title of the opera Der Weg der Verheissung (“the path of promise”) gains in its English rendering, The Eternal Road: Nothing affords a better sense of eternity than sitting through the show’s three and a half hours. The now-legendary 1937 premiere was a Broadway superspectacle by the writer Franz Werfel, composer Kurt Weill, and director Max Reinhardt, working more or less separately, largely at loggerheads. But Norman Bel Geddes’s five-tiered set, uniting a synagogue sheltering persecuted Jews with God and his angels in Heaven, became a legend in its own right. The production was a critical success but a commercial failure.

The very concept is dubious. As a fearful congregation awaits clemency, exile, or death the next morning, a rabbi reads stories from the Old Testament, and these seem to come to life. But this acting-out of biblical episodes presents heaps of problems. Are these scriptural characters, including God and angels, somehow the real thing? How much time is left to develop the arguing characters of the congregation into more than stick figures if you must enact also a series of biblical vignettes? What new light can be shed on Bible stories rushing by as a passing parade? And can those stories still interest a modern audience? Does the new ending, superimposed for this revival, help?

Franz Werfel had written good poetry and drama in his youth; by the thirties, his talent had shifted toward the novel. This lament for the unending Jewish diaspora is, I’m afraid, lamentable. Kurt Weill was a genius of nonclassical music, but, early on, he had composed some imposing classical pieces. Even so, if you juxtapose his Second Symphony, the ripest of the latter, with his theater piece The Seven Deadly Sins, containing some of the same music, there is no contest: Sins wins.

So too here. When Road sounds like the Berlin theater and cabaret songs recycled, or the Broadway shows, as it were, precycled, it is lovely, however inappropriate to the text. When it tries to be heroic or religious, even incorporating some traditional Jewish sacred music, it falls flat. Compare it with Honegger’s King David, which covers some of the same ground, and weep for Weill. No wonder the work hasn’t been revived until Theater Chemnitz’s opera company joined hands with bam and Israeli and Polish companies
to mount this somewhat doctored – but not cured – production.

Still, it could have profited from better direction than Michael Heinicke’s, better design than David Sharir’s (I was particularly amused when the naïve-art backdrops turned, for a view of Jerusalem, into Delaunay – or was it Feininger?), and some – any – choreography. The singers tended to sing like actors, the actors to act like singers. Yet it was nice to hear the worthy Theo Adam, even if vocally on his last legs, and good work from Jürgen Freier (Jeremiah) and two Siegfrieds, Lorenz and Vogel, in two roles each. A couple of others also registered favorably. But the Alien Girl and Ruth of Nancy Gibson; the Rabbi forged either by the American Roy Cornelius Smith or the German Peter-Jürgen Schmidt, who alternate; and the bewildered boy of the badly directed Christopher Jacob disappointed, as did some others.

The city of Chemnitz undertook this work as a gesture of repentance for the country’s Nazi past. Is it fair to inflict it on those of us who have nothing to expiate?

Heavenly Hash