Kurt Weill’s “The Firebrand of Florence” was one of his
numerous efforts at writing “intelligent operetta.” To quote
Joel Garland’s essay in the accompanying booklet, Weill
attempted to “…strike a balance between aesthetic integrity
and social relevance…” Based loosely upon Benvenuto
Cellini’s autobiography, the premiere performance of
“Firebrand” was a flop, due to various factors, including
unforeseen pressures and time constraints. Nevertheless,
according to Weill, its score was “…musically the best I have
written in years.”
Kurt Weill (1900-1950) emigrated from Germany to America
in 1935 with his wife, Lotte Lenya. Upon watching a rehearsal
of George Gershwin’s opera, “Porgy and Bess,” he shrewdly
realized that the Broadway stage would be the best venue
for the “socially relevant” works he intended to produce.
Prior to his arrival in America, Weill had achieved success on
the German stage during the late 1920’s, with such works
as “Die Dreigroschenoper” (The Threepenny Opera) and
“Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt.” (Rise and Fall of the City of
Mahagonny), both of which were in a “populist” vein.
Therefore, his compositional aims in America could be viewed
as a natural progression of that aesthetic. His instrumental
and stage works from the early to mid 1920’s were contrapuntally
and harmonically in a more expressionistic idiom. This fascinating
music is well worth hearing by anyone who wishes to have a
complete picture Weill’s oeuvre. It should also be noted that
he studied with composers Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921)
and Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924).
Well known as a composer of “popular” stage works, Weill is
primarily remembered for the song, “Mack the Knife,” from his
“Threepenny Opera.” However, his two-act “Street Scene”
work from 1947 is considered to be his American masterpiece.
Still, “The Firebrand of Florence” is definitely worth hearing,
and this world-premiere recording of a concert performance
from 2000 is an important release. As indicated in the
production liner notes, a lot of musicological research and
some compromises were necessary. One example was
using Sam Brookes’ poetic summary of Edwin Justus Mayer’s
text, in lieu of the dialogue between the musical numbers.
Simon Russell Beale read this poetic narrative. In addition,
prior to the Broadway premiere, some of the musical
numbers that had been cut were reinstated. From a musical
standpoint, this performance is as complete as we can
reasonably hope to expect, and Ira Gershwin’s clever lyrics
are a real selling point.
Baritone Rodney Gilfry sounded quite good in the role of Cellini.
As the Duke, George Dvorsky acquitted himself well, although
he was erroneously listed as a bass in the accompanying
booklet. All of the other singers were fine, if not outstanding,
and the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra played well,
under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis. The “live” recorded sound
was good, and the audience was appreciative.
I recommend this recording to Broadway musical enthusiasts and
others like me, who wish to learn more about one of the most
significant stage composers of the first half of the 20th Century.