The spectacle was the star at the 1937 opening of “The Eternal Road,” an ambitious Old Testament pageant with text by Franz Werfel and music by Kurt Weill that subsequently disappeared for more than 60 years. The production had its premiere at the Manhattan Opera House, which was extensively revamped to accommodate Max Reinhardt’s elaborate staging. The legendary German director’s contributions awed reviewers and audiences, and led to a run of 153 performances — no smash, to be sure, but still an astonishing number given the subject matter, a serious meditation on the history of the Jewish people.
The sheer size of the production, with its dozens of singing and speaking roles and hefty choral component, explains the sudden slide into obscurity.
In celebration of the centenary of Weill’s birth, this lost opus has been brought to the stage again, in a German-language production sponsored jointly by Germany’s Chemnitz Opera, New Israeli Opera, Opera Krakow and BAM, where it plays through the weekend.
It would take a “Lion King”-sized budget to even approximate the visual splendor of the original, and the more modest means of the institutions backing the production takes a toll on its impact.
But the desire to restore a lost score from a major 20th century composer provided the impetus behind the production, and in this respect, “The Eternal Road” doesn’t disappoint — Weill’s music, conducted by John Mauceri leading Chemnitz’s Robert Schumann Philharmonic Orchestra, is now unquestionably the leading attraction.
At times, however, the star plays only a supporting role. Werfel’s text dominates the first half of the production, as a Jewish congregation (here clearly a 20th century one) takes refuge in a synagogue from a pogrom raging outside.
To instill spirit and courage in his frightened flock, the Rabbi (Roy Cornelius Smith) reads stories of suffering and endurance from the Old Testament , and the stories come to life onstage.
Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Aaron, David and Bathsheba — the conflicts and crises of Jewish history erupt in Technicolor, powered by Weill’s unfailingly melodic music, as latter-day arguments among the congregation percolate in the foreground with generally more astringent musical accompaniment.
Werfel’s text for the synagogue scenes still has dramatic potency, as a character called the Adversary, splendidly acted by Dieter Montag, mockingly questions the advantage of being the “chosen” people if such a choice seems to engender endless suffering.
There is something inevitably stiff about the Bible scenes, however, particularly as staged and designed here with little grace or originality (the messengers of God, for example, in silvery skullcaps and matching robes, look more like messengers from an evil planet of B-movie provenance).
Weill’s strikingly eclectic score comes into its own in the more musically rich latter half of the evening. The familiar style of his earlier works such as “The Threepenny Opera” and “The Seven Deadly Sins” is heard only on occasion, as in a dramatic dialogue between Moses and his God, and the opening segments of the “Kings” act, depicting the marriage of the Moabite Ruth.
Elsewhere, there are duets that evoke, strangely enough, Wagner; heavenly choruses that pay homage to Handel and Bach; a sort of Mozart pastiche in the telling of the story of Saul and David. The Rabbi’s narration is hauntingly imbued with the sounds of Jewish liturgical music.
The assembled cast was not vocally stellar. Nancy Gibson, as Ruth, and Jurgen Freier’s Jeremiah made fine impressions, while Smith, singing the heavy role of the Rabbi, deserved a medal for valor.
But the orchestra under Mauceri performed beautifully throughout the evening’s three-and-a-half hours, seemingly savoring Weill’s colorful orchestrations and the sheer variety of the musical pageant he devised.