Chaotic Collegiate Chorale leaves Weill’s “Promise” unfulfilled
Like many American choral groups, the Collegiate Chorale is a semi-professional ensemble, composed of some combination of vocational singers and volunteers. That doesn’t mean they aren’t a good ensemble; in fact, they rank among the elite of the Northeast’s choruses, and regularly give memorable performances with the major American orchestras.
So it was surprising to hear them at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, in one of their mainstage season performances, sounding so unlike themselves. Giving the American premiere of “The Road of Promise,” Ed Harsh’s concert adaptation of Kurt Weill and Franz Werfel’s The Eternal Road, they sounded uncharacteristically challenged by the material. The women sounded shrill at the top, while the men stumbled awkwardly through their parts and veered away from true pitch. The chorus had trouble staying together with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, who were themselves far less polished than usual.
The work itself is problematic—legendarily epic in its spectacle (and length), Weill and Werfel’s original piece is a theatrical, episodic retelling of the story of the Jewish people in the Old Testament, framed by a temple service in a modern setting. Harsh’s condensed version, cut down to two hours plus intermission, is faithful both in form and spirit, preserving the frame as an exploration of Jewish identity, the questioning of faith, and resilience in the face of persecution. One of the evening’s finest performances, in fact, came from the dry skepticism of Ron Rifkin’s “Adversary,” a speaking role that challenges the teachings of the Rabbi in the synagogue scenes.
Weill’s music, though, is frustratingly average. There’s some pleasant lyricism in it, but aesthetic appeasement isn’t exactly Weill’s forte. Turning his talents with complete earnestness to a subject of deep spiritual significance, he seems to have been unable or unwilling to channel the acid bite of jagged and satirical masterpieces like Mahagonny and The Threepenny Opera.
Little help came from the cast. Mark Delavan, who had an admirable run as Wotan at the Met several season ago, sounded lost in his turns as Abraham and Moses, grasping at pitches. Lauren Michelle’s metallic soprano showed cloudy patches in her portrayals of Naomi and Rachel. AJ Glueckert, making appearances as Jacob, Boaz, David, and Isaiah, sang with a spiced, burgundy tenor, but was difficult to hear over the orchestra, who blared as though they were in a pit. The Voice of God, credited only as “Anonymous” and piped in through speakers, had a less than heavenly falsetto.
Of the men, only Philip Cutlip truly stood out, commanding authority with his cavernous baritone, particularly in his passionate portrayal of the prophet Jeremiah. The finest singing of all came from Megan Marino, displaying a smoldering mezzo-soprano as Miriam and Ruth. Her earnest reading of Ruth’s song was touching, albeit marred by the brusque and bony playing of the orchestra, led by Collegiate’s artistic director Ted Sperling.
Even the technical trappings of the performance were baffling: Paintings and drawings of the biblical scenes were projected across the back wall of the stage, with portions of the text superimposed, apparently for the sake of clarity; there seemed to be no consistent logic, though, as to which portions of the text would be rendered and which would not. The dialogue in the synagogue was all amplified, which is well enough on its own, but the mikes put the speakers a level or two higher than most of the singers, making for an unflattering comparison.
It was disappointing to hear a performance like this from the assembled forces of Collegiate and St. Luke’s. They are, quite simply, better than they sounded on Wednesday, and it’s hard not to wonder whether rehearsal time was especially tight. They’ll have another chance to show their true selves when they reprise “The Road of Promise” on Thursday.
“The Road of Promise” will be reprised 7 p.m. Thursday at Carnegie Hall. collegiatechorale.org