Orchestra Miami successfully delivers a religious epic with “Road of Promise”

By Lawrence Budmen

Allan Glassman was The Rabbi in Kurt Weill’s The Road of Promise, presented by Orchestra Miami Saturday night at Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach.

In 1937, Kurt Weill created his first American work The Eternal Road. An opera pageant that was simultaneously a Jewish biblical history and a warning about Nazism and the impending Holocaust, the work has attained near-legendary status yet few have ever seen or heard the score. Due to its length, extreme staging demands, the work has evaded production except for a low budget 1999 iteration by Germany’s Chemnitz Opera (later seen in Tel Aviv and Brooklyn). 

In 2015, musicologist John Harsh (working with the Kurt Weill Foundation) turned Weill’s four-hour plus opus into an oratorio The Road of Promise. The indefatigable Elaine Rinaldi introduced Harsh’s abridged version to South Florida with Orchestra Miami on Saturday night in the grandiose setting of Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach.

Set in fourteen scenes with a libretto by Austrian writer Franz Werfel (author of Song of Bernadette and the third and final husband of Alma Schindler, Gustav Mahler’s widow), the work proved to be a compelling music drama. The score is a bridge between Weill’s Weimar era musicals and operas and the Broadway shows he would create in the last fourteen years of his life. There are elements of both compositional styles in the wide-ranging musical panoply that looks back to the Baroque and forward to Stravinsky in his thorniest mode along the way. Weill’s orchestration is extravagant, exploiting the full range of instrumental coloration. Harsh has skillfully stitched together most of the crucial scenes from the original conception into a concert piece lasting around two hours and ten minutes.

The drama depicts a congregation taking refuge in a temple during a pogrom in an unnamed country. To calm his followers, a Rabbi recites the history of the Jewish people from the Old Testament. He is constantly interrupted by The Adversary, a contrarian skeptic as he also attempts to give a thirteen-year-old child a renewed sense of belief in his faith. Just as he gets to describing the destruction of the Temple, an announcement is heard from outside commanding everyone to depart or face death. The congregates leave, embarking on the eternal road. 

Weill himself followed that path. After his music was deemed “degenerate” and banned in Nazi Germany, he left for France. Following initial success in Paris, an antisemitic demonstration at the premiere of his new song cycle brought him to America in 1935 and a new chapter in his life and career.

Without sets and minimal costumeing, the singers enacted their roles on the sanctuary’s rostrum with the crucial chorus in the balconies on each side (divided into male and female groups). The orchestra was in makeshift pit formation, mostly on audience level. The handsome restored sanctuary proved an impressive space for the drama but its acoustic is cavernous. This worked well for the antiphonal elevated choirs but impeded diction for the singers on the mainstage. Orchestral sonority and balance were more immediate, perhaps because of proximity to the listeners.

In the role of The Rabbi, who serves as the drama’s narrator, Allan Glassman’s performance was nothing short of heroic. On just a few weeks notice, he took over the part from the ailing Anthony Dean Griffey. Under the circumstances, it was entirely understandable that he was reading the lengthy and crucial role from the score. He was a commanding figure, singing and portraying the leader with authority. Long a fixture at the Met and international houses, Glassman remains a tenor to be reckoned with. Glassman’s voice is still rich and voluminous with a dark baritonal lower register. He dominated the stage at his every utterance.

Glassman was not the only tenor to make a strong impression. In multiple appearances as Jacob, Boaz and David, David Margulis displayed a finely honed, secure lyric instrument and the ability to make the characters come to vibrant theatrical life. Margulis’ scene with Elizabeth Caballero as Rachel was one of the evening’s high points. Their voices were well blended, and the two singers delivered a powerful dramatic confrontation.

Following her stunning performance last season as Blanche Dubois in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, Caballero again was a decisive stage presence, her multi-hued soprano bringing theatricality and impact to Rachel’s relationship with Jacob. Her return near the conclusion to bemoan the destruction of Jerusalem and her descendants was moving and grandly tragic.

The veteran baritone Mark Delavan was an imposing Abraham, Moses and Jeremiah. His declamation was bold and stentorian, but Delavan’s timbre could also turn soft and mellow, particularly in the scene of Moses’ death which was sung with intense poignancy. Singing from the balcony, Gerardo José Ortega imbued the commands of The Voice of God with sweetness and resolute heft. Philip Kalmanovitch’s robust baritone was monarchical indeed as Solomon, his top range resounding clearly in a lyrical solo.

Stephanie Paige Newman’s potent portrayals of Miriam and Ruth were bathed in rich soprano tones. Ruth’s aria could easily have come from Weill’s musicals The Three Penny Opera and Happy End; Newman brought idiomatic stylishness to the cabaret-like melodic lines. In duet with Margulis, she could sound both refulgent and caressing.

Among the many smaller roles, Neil Nelson’s Dark Angel boomed through the house in powerful, molten bass tones. (Nelson has recently been appointed director of Florida Grand Opera’s Studio Artists program.) Alejandro Viera and Johan Hartman sang the two angels that arrive for Moses with delicacy and supple dynamics. Andrés Lasaga made Isaiah’s proclamations resound. Christine Jacobson’s strong soprano made the voice in the crowd’s lines scary and decisive.

Although his diction was not always clear in the problematic acoustic, Michael H. Small emerged both irritating and oddly ingratiating in the The Adversary’s spoken lines while Mason Lang seemed appropriately wide eyed with wonder and apprehension as the child.

Massed choral forces from the New World School of the Arts, St. Thomas University, Broward College and a specially formed choir (under Jared Peroune) sounded full and beautifully blended in segments that ranged from Bachian austerity to Carmina Burana-like pounding rhythms. The stirring, defiant final chorus (as the Jews leave for continued exile) capped the musical journey in rousing fashion.

From the Weimar echoes to the Broadway melodies, Middle Eastern coloration and jagged Stravinskyian fragments of Jerusalem’s destruction, Rinaldi fully commanded the score’s shifting patterns and sonic panorama. Except for a brief glitch early on, Orchestra Miami played with lustrous texture and precise musicality, the strings and solo trumpet especially outstanding.

The semi-staging by Vernon Hartman, himself once a fine Met baritone, was effective and aptly conveyed the saga’s triumphs and tragedies, aided by Bobby Brinson’s supple lighting.

There is one more opportunity to hear this important work by a significant 20th-century composer.

Orchestra Miami repeats The Road of Promise 3 p.m. Sunday at Temple Emanu-El in Miami Beach.  orchestramiami.org


Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Orchestra Miami successfully delivers a religious epic with “Road of Promise””

  1. Posted Feb 05, 2023 at 1:59 pm by Musician

    Glitches happen all the time and can be the fault of anybody, not just the members of the orchestra. What does not happen all the time is the way the performance was halted.

  2. Posted Feb 07, 2023 at 4:13 pm by AlsoMusician

    Regardless whose fault was the glitch in Saturday night’s performance, Musician appears to question the maestra’s decision to halt the performance and restart at a rehearsal number. Setting aside for the moment the fact that her decision was artistic in nature and therefore clearly within her job description to take, given the fact that this epic score was completely uncharted territory for every single musician on that stage up to the moment that rehearsals started just a few days before this performance, it is far from foregone conclusion that the disparate sections of the orchestra would have quickly and/or easily found each other, had Maestra Rinaldi opted instead to plow on through the cacophony when the glitch occurred.

    This musician, anyway, holds the opinion that given the absence of that familiarity we have with standard-repertoire workhorses, Saturday’s glitch likely would have lasted far longer than it did, and ultimately would have been more ruinous to the performance than the halt and restart.

    Lastly, under these specific circumstances, Musician perhaps should have refrained from leaving such a comment, as it could be considered in poor taste.

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Sun Feb 5, 2023
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