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It Took a Weill

One hundred years after his birth, 50 years after his death, Kurt Weill can finally be measured. Against all the news about the abandonment of serious music by the giants of the recording industry, EMI Classics has produced the first-ever recording of Weill’s grandest, most ambitious stage work, Die Bürgschaft, in a performance worthy of the score. If you think you know the stature of Weill’s legacy from The Threepenny Opera, Mahagonny and the richness of his later works for Broadway, you will need to adjust your estimate upward to include this huge newcomer to the list, an opera exhilarating in its musical sweep, exasperating in the imponderables of its plot, extraordinary in the sheer beauty of its many great moments.

Die Bürgschaft (The Pledge) dates from 1932. Weill’s collaboration with Bertolt Brecht had run its course, although they would join forces once again, as exiles in Paris two years later, in The Seven Deadly Sins. Caspar Neher created the libretto, a Marxist-existential-morality mishmash drawn from a parable by Johann Gottfried von Herder that, in turn, was based on a passage from the Talmud — all adding up to the message that money destroys rich and poor alike. That, of course, wasn’t so different from the sermons propounded by the lowlifes in both Threepenny and Mahagonny. This time, however, Weill was on different ground: not the arse-kicking Brechtian satire with music to match, but a broad and tragic panorama of suffering and self-destruction.

The music is rich and dark, with turns of harmony that send shivers down your spine and turns of melody that can trouble your dreams for days after. There is music like this in the Sins; the opera, however, with its large cast and orchestra, and its complex choral writing that involves not only participants in the plot but also a separate ensemble that comments on the action, drew from Weill the most extensive dramatic writing he would ever attempt.

Die Bürgschaft had a few performances in 1932. Then came Hitler. Aside from a couple of truncated radio presentations, it remained in limbo until 1998, when it was taken up by brave operatic forces in the small German city of Bielefeld. The recording is of the American premiere at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, in the spring of 1999, under the warm and knowing leadership of Julius Rudel and with a cast led by Frederick Burchinal and Dale Travis as the two friends whose financial indebtedness ends in murder, Margaret Thompson as a suffering wife, and Ann Panagulias as a daughter driven to prostitution.

I won’t hang by my thumbs in hopes of seeing Die Bürgschaft on any local stage; however gripping the music, the drama bends under the weight of middle-European symbolism. Even so, I am baffled that so powerful a work, crucial to our understanding of one of the truly original masters of his time, has suffered complete neglect for so long. Kim Kowalke, head of the Kurt Weill Foundation and co-producer of this recording, suggests in his notes that since the opera had no role for Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya, it didn’t make the agenda when the widowed Lenya embarked on her mission to hunt down and record (however inauthentically, with her haunting but aging vocal powers) the repertory of “lost” Weill.

One more “lost” work of Weill cries out for similar splendid restoration, the pageant piece Der Weg der Verheissung that the legendary director Max Reinhardt staged in New York in 1937 (as The Eternal Road), to a text by Franz Werfel that mingles a re-enactment of the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac into the contemporary travails of a threatened Jewish community. As in Bielefeld with Die Bürgschaft, Der Weg was restored last year in a small German city, Chemnitz, with John Mauceri conducting. That production, in German, then came to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I’ve seen the video from Chemnitz; the Weill score alternates with long spoken episodes, but the music, as in Die Bürgschaft, has a rolling, solemn eloquence that couldn’t be by any other composer. It needs a new English translation, and an editor’s scissors on the dialogue. Join me in praying that this may someday happen.

While you wait, linger among the pages of David Farneth’s Kurt Weill: A Life in Pictures and Documents (Overlook Press), handsome, expensive and invaluable, as close a reproduction of the sound and spirit of this troubled musical visionary as a printed page can afford. It joins previous Foundation-sponsored projects — a Lenya volume, handsomely packaged with CDs of every note she ever recorded, and Speak Low, the letters of Weill and Lenya, a throbbing and powerful memento.

The pickings are rather slim so far for any local celebration of the Weill anniversary. The Happy End at MOCA, partly underwritten by Krispy Kreme doughnuts and similar in texture, shouldn’t have happened. Audra McDonald sings the Sins with the Philharmonic next season. When I moved here in 1979, Los Angeles offered more. The East-West Players, in their little dive of a theater in Silver Lake, did several of the theater pieces, including a memorable Happy End. Ron Sossi’s Odyssey Theater produced a smashing version of Johnny Johnson, Weill’s first fully American theater work. There were still survivors here from Weill’s Berlin, most of them with memories intact and delighted to recount them into my tape recorder. Kim Kowalke was on the Occidental faculty at the time, and helped me put my interviews, and his own European tapes of music still little known back then, into a radio series for KUSC in its adventurous days now past.

Margot Aufricht, widow of the producer of the first Threepenny, sat in her Beverly Hills living room and talked enchantingly about the delirious infighting among that masterwork’s first cast, in Berlin, 1928. Felix Jackson, the Hollywood writer who married Deanna Durbin and did the script for Destry Rides Again, was formerly Felix Joachimson, and in 1926 had written the libretto for a Weill opera, Na Und?, that has been completely lost. He, therefore, was the last surviving link to that work. Hans Heinsheimer, who was Weill’s publisher at Universal Edition, claimed to be the one who ordered Weill to toss Na Und? into the Danube. In Santa Barbara, the wonderful Maurice Abravanel, who had studied with Weill in Berlin and later conducted his music on Broadway, talked and talked. In New York there was Lenya, with her home-cooked legend about the nonstop lovey-dovey life with Kurt, soaring free of such earthly matters as divorce, reconciliation and fornication.

They’re gone now, all those old people with the vivid memories and equally vivid fictions. They might put up a fuss now that so little Weill is happening here in this centennial year. Somebody should.

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