Reconstructing a Broadway Operetta the Case of Kurt Weill's Firebrand of Florence

By Galand, Joel | Notes, December 1999 | Go to article overview

Reconstructing a Broadway Operetta the Case of Kurt Weill's Firebrand of Florence


Galand, Joel, Notes


THE QUESTION OF GENRE

Adorno once described Kurt Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper as "operetta [that] has quite simply been exalted." [1] This characterization may be as good as any for a work so resistant to generic classification. But the fact remains that only twice did Weill compose a work that can unequivocally be called an operetta, if by that term we denote the Offenbachian model first disseminated in central Europe by the likes of Franz von Suppe, Johann Strauss Jr., and Carl Millocker. Indeed, Weill, who in the 1920s had so admired Karl Kraus's production of Offenbach's Verbesserungen when they were staged at Kiemperer's Kroll Oper, saw himself as something of an heir to the operetta tradition of the Second Empire. Yet his two works belonging most self-consciously to that tradition, Der Kuhhandel (1935) and The Firebrand of Florence (1945), were staggeringly unsuccessful.

The reasons for their failure are complicated and owe a good deal to technical and artistic circumstances surrounding their original productions. Part of the problem, though, stemmed from Weill's very choice of genre. In 1935, a West End audience would have anticipated a leggy Cochran-style revue or perhaps a romantic musical comedy in the vein of Ivor Novello. Der Kuhhandel, an operetta about an arms race between two Caribbean dictatorships, far darker in tone than the political satire of Savoy opera, did not enter their horizon of expectations, despite the extra love songs Weill interpolated at the last minute.

On the other hand, The Firebrand of Florence, loosely based on episodes from the memoirs of Benvenuto Cellini, [2] largely eschews Offenbachian political satire, even though the lyricist, Ira Gershwin, had collaborated on several projects in that vein with his brother and the writers Morris Ryskind and George Kaufmann (the Pulitizer-prize-winning Of Thee I Sing being a prime example). Humor in The Firebrand derives largely from the deliberate anachronisms that Gershwin's lyrics and Edwin Mayer's book introduce into their tale of the Medicis. Critics--and presumably audiences as well--were confused by the juxtaposition of an operatically styled score, a historical book, and humor that ranged from subtle allusion to near slapstick. In the earlier Broadway costume operettas that Firebrand superficially resembles, such as Rio Rita (1927) and The Vagabond King (1925), the principal romantic plot was kept rigorously separate from those elements of comic relief furnished by the secondary dancing couple. The Firebra nd subverts the generic expectations of an operetta audience. That may have contributed to its swift demise, although Mayer's adaptation of his 1924 comedy, despite some charming moments, proved a weak libretto. One expected better from the screenwriter for many a Lubitsch film.

PRODUCTION HISTORY

The philological problems that a critical edition of The Firebrand of Florence entails are intimately bound with the fact of its failure. Although the challenges, principles, and solutions that Stephen Hinton enumerates in connection with his edition of Die Dreigroschenoper (see pp. 319-30 above) pertain as well to the present instance, there remains a crucial difference. The extended production history of the earlier work; the publication of its vocal score, orchestral parts, and libretto; and the revision of its holograph full score for eventual, if posthumous, publication--all of these factors evince specific authorial intentions towards a transmission of the work capable, as Hinton puts it, "of transcending [its] original theatrical incarnation." [3] In contrast, there was never time for The Firebrand to settle into anything more than a provisional form; the distinction between text and script, work and event, here risks near obliteration.

Three months before the Boston tryout of February 1945, Weill and Gershwin had yet to write several large-scale numbers. Weill scarcely had time to produce the orchestral score, the longest of his career up to that time and surpassed only by Love Life (1948). …

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