Rehearsals have been underway for Kurt Weill and Franz Werfel’s The Road of Promise for several weeks now. I can report that the Chorale is in fine voice and really enjoying working with this fascinating piece. I was trying to think of how to describe it to someone recently, and it was hard to categorize. It was originally an epic musical in the late 1930s titled The Eternal Road, the origins of which Janet Pascal has chronicled thoroughly here. From what we’ve learned during the rehearsal process, it was quite possibly the most massive musical ever staged, with seven acres of set pieces, a 100+ person cast, and a length of nearly five hours. This unwieldiness meant that revivals weren’t likely, so the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music commissioned a shortened version, which is The Road of Promise.
As a choral singer, you don’t get the full effect of a piece until you perform it with the orchestra and soloists, and there’s not a recording of this work yet (although there we’ll be: we’re making it!), but here’s what I can tell you. While it is shorter in terms of time, it doesn’t seem to have lost much in terms of sound. Weill’s sonic palate was rich and bright in this score, and his phrases are painted in broad strokes. It’s luscious, even when we only have a piano to sing with; I can only imagine what the orchestra is going to sound like.
The story recounts a number of tales from the Old Testament as a Jewish community huddles fearfully in its synagogue during a pogrom. Werfel’s lyrics, therefore, have the chorus perform one moment as God’s voice on the wind as he tells Abraham to spare his son, Isaac, and another moment as a choir of trumpeting angels. Meanwhile, on the ground, you’ll hear us raucously rejoice as we worship the golden calf, pout grumpily as Joseph’s brothers who wish to kill him, and so forth. It’s gorgeous music that relays profound subject matter, but it’s also quite a lot of fun to listen to.
So as I thought about how to describe it — lush sonic color, Old Testament themes — it occurred to me: this is the musical version of the Sistine Chapel, and I’m not just saying that to be cutesy. Most operas and oratorios that deal with the same biblical subject matter hone in on a single story to explore in depth, but this work brings as many tales to life as it can in order to tell a much bigger story, which is exactly what the Sistine Chapel does.
So there you go. I don’t know if anyone has ever described a musical work as ‘Sistine,’ but that’s what The Road of Promise is:
Huge. Breathtaking. Demanding. Gorgeous.