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Benvenuto, Cellini!

It's grand to have Kurt Weill's The Firebrand of Florence complete on CD, but the casting is haphazard and the work itself quite strange. logo
Among the great Broadway composers of the last century, one of the toughest to sum up is Kurt Weill. After rigorous classical training and a successful career writing opera, symphonic works, ballets, and Brechtian agitprop in Germany, the refugee washed up on these shores and pretty much reinvented himself. His American output is as varied as, say, Frank Loesser's; there's nothing the guy wouldn't try. Only Weill's first Broadway effort, Johnny Johnson (1936), retains any of the sound of his European output.

From there, working with as varied a list of collaborators as any composer in history, Weill attempted everything: political satire (Knickerbocker Holiday), three mini-operas contained within a straight play (Lady in the Dark), outright musical comedy (One Touch of Venus), brooding Broadway opera (Street Scene), one of the first concept musicals (Love Life), and distinctive musical tragedy (Lost in the Stars). Somewhat like that of Sondheim, Weill's work was better received by the intelligentsia than the man in the street; still, most of his shows had at least respectable runs, and the man in the street had no problem with the likes of "Speak Low," "My Ship," or "September Song."

In a remarkable canon, only one Weill title met with outright public and critical indifference: the operetta The Firebrand of Florence (1945). It looked like a sure thing on paper. The show was an adaptation of Edwin Justus Mayer's hit 1924 comedy The Firebrand (which became a well-received Fredric March movie, The Affairs of Cellini, 10 years later), with a book by Mayer and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. Max Gordon produced, spending a then-ridiculous $225,000; Mrs. Weill, a.k.a. Lotte Lenya, was featured as a man-hungry duchess; and John Murray Anderson directed. The Boston tryout was a disaster and George S. Kaufman was called in for script doctoring. But nothing could save this one; The Firebrand of Florence staggered through 43 performances before calling it quits.

For decades, there was virtually no audio documentation of this ambitious score. Original conductor Maurice Abravanel recorded six selections but they were never issued. In the 1970s, the Mark 56 label released an LP of Ira Gershwin demos as part of a collection titled Ira Gershwin Loves to Rhyme, with Weill at the piano. (Believe me, 20 minutes of Ira Gershwin's singing feels like 100). A few years back, Thomas Hampson's Kurt Weill on Broadway CD included some lengthy excerpts. Now, finally, Capriccio has issued a 2-CD Firebrand with Sir Andrew Davis conducting a large cast, headed by Rodney Gilfry as Benvenuto Cellini. It's as lavish and well-executed a package as a Weillophile could hope for -- and it reveals why Firebrand flopped.

You can't accuse Kurt and Ira of not trying. The opening, an 18-minute mini-opera wherein Cellini's planned execution in Florence's public square is halted by a pardon (shades of The Threepenny Opera), is expertly assembled and prodigiously rhymed: "Florence" alone is hooked with "warrants," "torrents," and "abhorrence." But, right away, something's amiss. The hangmen preparing the scaffold philosophize that "one man's death is another man's living under the gallows tree," and the effect is more off-puttingly macabre than delightfully eccentric. When a shackled Cellini enters with a Big Tune, "Life, Love, and Laughter," he emerges as a bellicose, womanizing boor whom Gilfry's customary finesse and bravado can't redeem. (It's an Alfred Drake sort of part, and Drake was in fact originally sought; one wonders if even he could have turned this blowhard into a charmer.) Some rhythmically exciting dance patterns emerge in the "Come to Florence" section but, dramatically, it's just an excuse for chorus cuties to kick up their heels. Cellini is pardoned, the street vendors hawking "souvenirs of the hanging of Cellini" change their spiel to "souvenirs of the pardon of Cellini," and the story lurches forward.

Judging from the March film version, the original play appears to have been an unusually lavish sex comedy with Cellini wooing his model Angela, the nitwit Duke of Florence also setting his cap on her, and the Duke's rapacious wife pursuing Cellini. It's not a story that begs to be musicalized, and Weill and Gershwin have a hard time finding a consistent tone. Cellini and Angela share a lovely waltz, "You're Far Too Near Me" (with some ingenious internal rhymes), but it sounds more sincere than this bounder of a hero deserves. A later duet, "Love is My Enemy," is musically intriguing -- it doesn't even have a home key -- but too somber for a sex romp, and Angela is burdened with a second, Romberg-like waltz, "The Little Naked Boy" (a collection of Cupid clichés). In Act II, a newly arrested Cellini defends himself in court with a showpiece called "You Have to Do What You Do Do." It's meant to be a "Saga of Jenny"-like show-stopper -- the music was, in fact, originally intended for Lady in the Dark -- but it's far less ingenious.

It's a wide-ranging score and there are plenty of pearls in it: the Duchess's randy "Sing Me Not a Ballad," with a very '40s, almost doo-wop male quartet behind her; a "Nosy Cook" trio that bulges with Spoonerisms; and a fun song-scene in which Cellini, describing a battle that he had with a count and his cronies, tells and retells the tale with the body count escalating each time. But we're never able to care about this braggart, and his plain-spoken ladylove emerges as a cipher. It doesn't help that soprano Lori Ann Fuller, as Angela, is vocally expert but no actor. As the Duchess, Felicity Palmer is all one could ask for, a real comedienne with a plummy mezzo; you keep wishing that she had more material. But George Dvorsky's Duke of Florence has to be the strangest CD casting of the year. Why get a conventional, handsome, legit-baritone leading man -- he'd probably be a fine Cellini -- to play a dithering, Frank Morgan-like buffoon? (George S. Irving could have done it in 1945; he could still do it today!) Dvorsky is not a natural comedian and he strains so hard to be funny that his voice cracks repeatedly.

In a two-hour recording with much musical material painstakingly tracked down and restored, something had to go; wisely, Capriccio chose to toss away the book. In place of Mayer's verbose libretto, the action is linked through rhymed speeches written by Sam Brookes and elegantly rendered by Simon Russell Beale, à la RCA's old cast album of The Golden Apple. Some of Brookes' choices are questionable -- should the 16th-century title character really be deemed "a stud?" -- but most are pretty witty, and it's an efficient way to dispense with a meandering text. The whole album is taken from a BBC Radio concert version of 2000, taped before a studio audience that doesn't sound like it's having all that great a time.

The Firebrand of Florence may be one of those fascinating curio musicals, like Greenwillow and Flahooley, that will just never work. I saw a production of Firebrand at Ohio Light Opera in 1999; it was well-sung, competently staged, and still far from a revelation. Glad as you'll be to hear all of this little-explored Weill and Gershwin, and as beautifully conducted and orchestrated as the recording is, you won't feel that critics and audiences of 1945 sold the show terribly short.

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