A Rediscovered Music Gem
Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center
Kurt Weill: The Firebrand of Florence
Ira Gershwin (Lyrics), Edwin Justus Mayer (Book)
Nathan Gunn (Cellini), Anna Christy (Angela), Terrence Mann (Duke of Florence), Victoria Clark (Duchess of Florence), David Pittu (Ascanio, Maffio, First Clerk, Marquis Pierre), Krysty Swann (Emilia), Patrick Goss (Ottaviano de Medici), Roosevelt Credit (Hangman), Kalif Omari Jones (Duchess’s Page), James Gamble (Page), Andrew Flores (Page)
Collegiate Chorale, New York City Opera Orchestra, Ted Sperling (Conductor)
Roger Rees (Narrator and Director), Edward Barnes (Coordinating Producer), Frances Aronson (Lighting Designer), Michael Clark (Projection Designer), Jacob Climer (Production Stylist), Sanja Kabalin (Stage Manager)
(© Erin Baiano)
The Firebrand of Florence was Kurt Weill’s ill-fated foray into a genre he named "Broadway operetta". It opened on Broadway in 1945 and ran for a mere 43 performances. Then it disappeared for almost sixty years. Before this magical one night run at Lincoln Center, it had only been revived once – by the Ohio Light Opera. There were also two concert performances in 2000 – one by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, with a rhymed narration by Simon Russell Beale, and another by the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Vienna.
The plot is simple and rather silly. Benvenuto Cellini, the great Florentine Renaissance sculptor and goldsmith, has been sentenced to hang. The Duke pardons him, however, when he realizes that a sculpture he had commissioned from Cellini is not yet finished. The Duke and Cellini are both entranced by Angela. The Duchess is entranced by Cellini. And Cellini is clearly entranced with himself. Adventures and intrigue multiply. And all live happily ever after. Or perhaps not.
Weill was an extraordinarily gifted composer who made the transition from Berlin to Paris to Hollywood with ease. He wrote works for musical theater while he still lived in Germany. Before the debacle of Firebrand, he had achieved success on Broadway, just as his German works were finding a new audience. Firebrand, was an adaptation of a very successful play by Edwin Justus Mayer. Its lyrics were by Ira Gershwin. Twentieth Century Fox, expecting a money-making film adaptation, underwrote the entire cost of the Broadway production. Expectations were so high. So what went wrong?
According to Weill himself, his conception was thwarted. He had in mind “an opéra comique of the Offenbach line.” He wrote to Gershwin that he saw the work as “more a comic opera than a musical comedy, which means it would have a great deal of music of all types: songs, duets, quartets…” But the Mayer adaptation of his own play produced an extremely weak book. The performance was also poor. Gershwin’s lyrics have charm, but they are often rather silly, with contrived, albeit hilarious rhymes. Just a few examples: “No genie can save the neck of Cellini.” “Night times in Florence are not for death warrants.” He rhymed “glory” with “cacciatore”, “fizzle” with “chisel”, and “clutches” with “crutches”.
Sixty years after its failure, Firebrand has returned to New York in a production that enchanted the audience. What made it work was an adaptation and direction by Roger Reese that turned the silliness into camp. Rees, as the narrator, tightened up the story. The concert version freed the ravishing music from the dead weight of a staged production. And the enthusiasm and evident enjoyment of the cast was contagious. Everyone was smiling during the performance and the smiles continued as the audience filed out into the street. And why not? The music of Firebrand is tuneful, ingratiating, cheerful, and fun.
This production is the ultimate cross-over. Half the cast came from the world of opera; the other half came from the theater. Nathan Gunn, as Cellini, had already crossed over from his established operatic career to Broadway in Camelot and Showboat. He sang with a full, rich baritone voice, and he acted with energy and conviction. His portrayal of a charming, egocentric, wily seducer was spot on. Anna Christy, as Angela, his model, has a beautiful bell like voice. She conveyed both the innocence and the romantic appeal of her character. Christy has sung at the Met and the New York City Opera. Krysty Swann, who has also appeared with the New York City Opera, sang with a lovely mellow tone. Terrence Mann, Victoria Clark and David Pittu, Broadway actors all, were very effective. Indeed, Clark’s sardonic and witty duchess threatened to steal the show. Pittu’s style was exaggerated high camp, complete with conspiratorial winks at the audience. Roger Rees narrated with a clear voice, perfect enunciation, and a large dose of charm. He had a terrific rapport with audience. He narrated as if he were sharing a story with us and, at times, sharing a joke.
The New York City Opera Orchestra, in fine form, gave full expression to the lush and lyrical melodies. It’s a shame that they are so under-employed. One can only hope that the New York City Opera will be back next season. The Collegiate Chorale was superb. In their substantial role as commentators on the action, they made Weill’s melodies soar. Projections of Florence, focusing on its artistic monuments, were very effective at creating an atmosphere. The droll and campy tone of the evening was also captured in other projections, most notably the noose and the big shiny heart.
While I don’t see a staged production of Firebrand as a realistic possibility, I do hope that this one performance is not the last. And a recording by this terrific cast would be something to savor.
Arlene Judith Klotzko