Articles written for JEWISH WEEK by Leonard J. Lehrman

Redeeming 'The Eternal Road":
Weill's biblical epic at BAM works better as education than opera.

Mar. 10, 2000



[passages in brackets were cut by the editor]

Max Reinhardt's spectacle, "Der Weg der Verheissung" ("The Way of Promise"), presented in 1937 at the Manhattan Opera in a poor English translation titled "The Eternal Road," was a mammoth collaboration among three Jews who had married Gentiles, and were trying to come to terms with their German Jewish heritage, on the brink of what would become the near extinction of that heritage: The author Franz Werfel wove together Old Testament stories with an occasional twist of Christian symbolism, while composer Kurt Weill, the son of a cantor, drew upon hundreds of German synagogue melodies as well as the heritage of Bach, Mendelssohn, and his own Biblical parodies in works like "Mahagonny," "Die Bürgschaft," and "The Seven Deadly Sins."

The result was an amalgam that resonates today on at least five levels: as history, drama, music, philosophical debate, and educational tool.

It was as the last of these that the work's performances in the original German at Brooklyn Academy of Music Feb. 28-Mar. 5 proved most successful, especially for the participants: the 80-member Robert Schumann Philharmonic Orchestra of Chemnitz (Germany), 37 soloists, and four choirs--from Chemnitz, Leipzig, and Kraków (Poland)-- 250 performers in all--nearly all of whom were hearing the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Moses, Aaron, Joshua, Ruth, Saul, David, and Jeremiah for the first time.

A dozen years of anti-Semitic Nazism, followed by a half-century of anti-religious socialism, had effectively obliterated their culture's familiarity with the Bible.

American guest conductor John Mauceri had been seeking a way to present the work for a quarter of a century, and led the massed forces with [love and] admirable energy.

American tenors Roy Cornelius Smith and Edward Randall shone as the Rabbi and David, respectively.

Matteo de Monti as Moses was the only Jew in the entire company, but David Sharir was brought in from Israel to design the simple but effective faux-naive sets and costumes. Opening in Chemnitz last June and returning there briefly in November, the production now heads for Israel and Poland.

Director Michael Heinicke was responsible for the staging, which unfortunately consisted of little more than the hackneyed knock-down roll-on-the-floor gestures of provincial theaters. The work deserves better, and Christopher Bergen's surtitles need serious correction: "Heil" does not mean "salvation" but "redemption" in this context; "Adonai" (the Lord) should not be confused with "Adonijah" (the fourth son of David); and turning Isaiah's "pruning hooks" into "sickles" provided an inadvertently humorous overtone of socialism.
The ending, too, was a great disappointment.

Bringing the pistol-touting Nazis on, and having the previously anti-religious Jew ("the Adversary") masquerade as the Rabbi and martyr himself while proclaiming the Sh'ma, could work. But it needs musical support: the suggestion of bringing back the beautiful Act I musical setting of the Sh'ma (in German) might have been considered, and perhaps will be in future productions. (And there should be future productions: any house capable of producing "Parsifal," with all its implied anti-Semitism, should be required to present "Der Weg der Verheissung<" in its entirety, as a step toward granting "equal time.")

The militant march to Zion that at present concludes (the final) Act IV of the opera, though melodically anticipated in the orchestral counterpoint of Abraham's Act I entrance into Canaan and the return in Act II under Joshua, seemed tacked on, both musically and textually. Indeed, the Zionistic message desired by the original producer, Meyer Weisgal, does not really appear at all in Werfel's libretto: the original message of the piece seems to have argued in favor of repentance and reconciliation as opposed to violence or exodus.

As such, it may be even more appropriate today than in the Nazi era: Chemnitz's repentant, conciliatory restoration of this piece goes hand in hand with its welcoming back its Jews and building a new synagogue.

The son of an expatriated Chemnitzer, American film-maker Ron Frank has put together a one-hour documentary of both activities: "Encounters with the Past," starring Michael Wager and Theodore Bikel. It will be shown at BAM Sunday, March 12 at 2 and 9:30pm,
and telecast later this year.