21 Sep 2005

WEILL: The Firebrand of Florence

When I was a young child, my mother purchased a blouse and brought it home to the acclaim of my aunts and older sisters. "Oh, that's smart!" they pronounced, cooing and stepping back to admire the thing. Not a little bit jealous, I was taken aback.

Later, I cornered the thing in the closet: "If you're so smart, what's 2 plus 2?" The blouse sat there mute and insolent. I tried all the equations my four-year old mind knew: 3 plus 3, 4 plus 4, and the tricky 5 plus 5. Not a word in response. "You're not so smart!" I triumphed and quit the field victorious.

My four-year old mind was incapable of making the distinction between the two meanings of the term current at that time: smart as in intelligent and smart as in looking like the acme of style. This smartly dressed "Broadway Operetta" by Weill strikes one as firmly inscibed in the latter; its status in terms of the former, however, is questionable.

The fault lies principally with the libretto, which reputes to be about Benvenutto Cellini, but from the onset substitutes a cardboard character — the shallowest of Broadway portraits — for its namesake. The subject matter has (as well evidenced elsewhere) operatic potential; its realization here is a travesty — Cellini as a "regular guy," as they said in Weill's day. The result might challenged the average four-year old mind, but above that seems merely tedious.

Not that Weill doesn't try to salvage the proceedings: there are some fleeting moments of very good writing. But nothing comes across as truly exceptional, along the standards of Weill's other work.

The audience, accordingly, voted with their feet. After an investment of a quarter of a million dollars, the thing flopped to a standstill on its fourty-third performance.

To the historian, the operetta will be of critical interest. Weill's work in the 1940's shows his considerable ability when confronted with the tastes and genres of wartime New York, and thus Weill scholars will want to compare this score with his other work. Perhaps more importantly, however, the genre of "Broadway Operetta" is suggestive and needs examination. It may be an essential component (if in large part only by its failures) in assessing the aesthetics of North American musical theater at mid century. (Which is a polite way of saying that all in all the work is not a complete write off: feed it to the scholars.)

There are redeeming features. The notes by Joel Galand are excellent. His appraisal of the work's genesis and of its failures is exemplary criticism. Galand edited the scholarly edition, and thus he is perhaps the most familiar with the work. (The recording here is based on a pre-publication version of the score.)

The recording is done live, a concert version presented by the BBC Symphony under Andrew Davis in early 2000. If the voices are largely undistinguished, they are enthusiastic, which unfortunately merely adds to the incongruity. One has the sense of everyone looking the other way while a crime is being perpetrated.

It has been proven again and again that most operas survive in spite of the best efforts of their librettists. Let us say that here the librettist got the upper hand. When this happens with a lesser composer, we are prepared to write the thing off. When this happens with a composer of the caliber of Weill, well, ouch that smarts!

Murray Dineen
University of Ottawa