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Arts & Entertainment Preview - February 2000

Classical Music
B Y   A U S T I N   B A E R

Weill's Prophetic Road

Weill's Prophetic Road
   Road in Chemnitz

"It fits into no category: opera, oratorio, musical play, pageant, biblical drama, masque, mystery play." Thus a German critic, shattered by the experience, attempted to evoke last summer's re-creation of Der Weg der Verheissung. Lost from view since its world premiere as The Eternal Road, in New York in 1937, Kurt Weill's prophetic magnum opus portrays a Jewish community gathered in a synagogue where, under threat of unspecified terror, the congregants revisit their sacred history. The tales of such forebears as Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David build to the new exodus or diaspora with which the action ends. Staged in lavish fashion by Max Reinhardt, no less, the original New York version ran for 153 performances; though praised by the critics, it was one of the worst financial debacles in Broadway history. The millennial revival spreads the risk among a consortium of international co-producers. From the cheerless German burg of Chemnitz, the show now comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (February 28-March 5; 718-636-4100). Reading about the work, one marvels at the prescience of its creators (Franz Werfel wrote the text), who foresaw and foretold only too well. But how far, in the circumstances, were they able to rise above propaganda, however right-minded? And what do we make of a Burning Bush that sings to Moses in three-quarter time? Where some critics in Chemnitz saw revelation, others saw travesty and betrayal.

For the Fallen

For the Fallen
The BSO's Seiji Ozawa  

Benjamin Britten dedicated his War Requiem (1962) to four men who fell in the Second World War; they are named in the score, with their ranks. But in a larger sense the work stands as music's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. "I am the enemy you killed, my friend," the baritone sings in a setting of poems by Wilfred Owen, a casualty of the prior conflict. The English verses are interwoven with the Latin of the traditional Requiem mass, which in its most harrowing passage records the terrors of the soul on the brink of the Last Judgment. The juxtaposition of such impersonal ancient text in a foreign tongue with the idiomatic voice of a single individual creates a counterpoint of peculiar force, tacitly acknowledging the bond between any man and Everyman. The clashing musical styles -- hieratic and rhetorical for the soprano soloist and chorus; introspective for the two male soloists, seen at times as fighters in enemy armies -- underscore Britten's pacifist message in similar fashion. Multinational casting, though no requirement, can add to the ceremony. The world premiere, in bomb-struck Coventry Cathedral, featured the all-star trio of Galina Vishnevskaya (Russian), Peter Pears (English), and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (German) under Britten's own direction. With the Boston Symphony the soloists are Christine Goerke (American), Ian Bostridge (English), and Thomas Quasthoff (German). Seiji Ozawa, who conducts, is, of course, Japanese (February 23-29; 617-266-1200).

A Roman Holiday in Florida and Washington, D.C.

A pre-Cleopatra Genaux
  A pre-Cleopatra Genaux

How to cast the title role of Handel's Julius Caesar? ("Giulio Cesare" to you.) Back when Beverly Sills warbled her way to international stardom as Cleopatra, her leading man was Norman Treigle, a bass. He looked every inch the commander, but his gravelly timbre and rough-hewn coloratura would never fly today. To Handel, the voice of choice for heroes was the mezzo-soprano. Whether it issued from the throat of a surgically altered male or from that of a woman in male attire concerned him little. The rise of historically informed performance practice has brought back many things, but so far not the castrato. Instead we have the modern countertenor, who may, for all we know, be a quite different kettle of fish acoustically but whose vocal color and panache in his finest incarnations strike many contemporary ears as just what the doctor ordered. Now that Handel's kings and knights and generals are being sung at the right pitch, however, the parts are once again fair game for women, too. Thus it transpires that this month opera lovers with frequent-flyer miles to spare will be jetting up and down the East Coast to compare two contenders for the title of greatest Roman of them all. Florida Grand Opera, performing in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, fields David Daniels, who scores with his golden timbre, seductive musicianship, and moody flair (February 9-26; 800-741-1010). At the Washington Opera all eyes and ears will be on the smoky-voiced Vivica Genaux, a lithe beauty who pounces on her music with the killer instinct of a tiger (February 12- March 9; 202-295-2400).

Austin Baer is a writer based in New York.

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Photo Credits -- Weill: Dieter Wuschanski. Ozawa: C. Steiner. Caesar: George Landis, The Dallas Opera.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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