Past Articles

What's New on the Rialto

The Firebrand of Florence
By Alan Gomberg

Kurt Weill circa 1944
In recent years, a number of stage works composed by Kurt Weill have received first recordings. Unfortunately, the most important of these recordings - EMI's release of his great 1932 opera, Die B├╝rgschaft - was soon deleted from the catalog.

In contrast, the German label Capriccio has been devoted to recording both rare and popular works by Weill and keeping the recordings in print. The downside is that some of the performances have been rather mediocre. Now Capriccio has released one of Weill's most obscure works, The Firebrand of Florence, which he wrote with lyricist Ira Gershwin and playwright Edwin Justus Mayer. This operetta about Benvenuto Cellini (also the subject of an opera by Berlioz), the 16th-century Florentine sculptor, goldsmith, and adventurer in both the amatory and political arenas, was based on Mayer's 1924 play The Firebrand. The play had been a hit on Broadway, and the film version, titled The Affairs of Cellini, was a hit in 1934.

Weill and Gershwin started work in late June 1944. In February 1945, the show opened in Boston as Much Ado About Love. In March, as The Firebrand of Florence, it opened on Broadway. In April, it closed. What went wrong?

Boston production with Earl Wrightson as Cellini,
Randolph Symonette as the Hangman,
Lotte Lenya as the Duchess, Melville Cooper as the Duke

Photo: Richard Tucker

One contributing factor may have been that Gershwin's attention to the project waxed and waned as they wrote. With Weill pressing him, though, the writing progressed quickly, if not as quickly as producer Max Gordon wanted. A major problem was that Mayer, beset by health problems, was turning out a pedestrian libretto. In his attempts to cut down on the play's cynicism and add a bit of sentiment, he undermined and sometimes just deleted what was good about his play. Gershwin ended up being co-credited for the book, but that was hardly his area of expertise.

Moss Hart would have been the right director for what was intended to be an intimate, sophisticated operetta, but they couldn't get him. The job went to John Murray Anderson, whose experience was mainly in spectacles, revues, and the circus. Anderson had directed Rodgers and Hart's intimate operetta Dearest Enemy, but that was in 1925.

In late November, Weill realized that the show would be better if the style of the opening scene, a 20-minute sequence that was almost through-composed, were employed more often. Whether because neither Gordon nor Anderson wanted this, or because there wasn't time for additional writing with Gordon determined to get the show on as soon as possible, this never quite happened. Weill and Gershwin did manage to get in a couple of fairly long musical sequences within scenes.

Ira Gershwin circa 1939
For the last scene, Gordon and Anderson wanted spectacle and a happy ending, rather than the bittersweet conclusion the writers had in mind. Weill and Gershwin hurriedly gave them what they wanted, reprising material already in the show.

Casting was a nightmare. Weill and Gershwin wanted Lawrence Tibbett for Cellini, but Gordon thought he was too old. Alfred Drake wasn't available. They ended up with Earl Wrightson, who would prove inadequate, though not as inadequate as female lead Beverly Tyler, playing Cellini's muse, Angela. Even after her music was simplified, and some of it shifted to other characters or cut altogether, she still couldn't sing it, nor could she act.

Weill had always planned that his wife, Lotte Lenya, would play the comic supporting role of the Duchess. Over the objections of the rest of the production team, who thought she was miscast, she did. (When the show opened, the critics savaged her.)

Walter Slezak was sought to play opposite Lenya as the Duke of Florence. He seemed right for the role temperamentally, and it was hoped that Lenya's German accent as an Italian duchess would seem less bizarre if the Duke also had a German accent. Gordon wouldn't pay what Slezak demanded. They ended up with the very English Melville Cooper, who was funny enough but couldn't sing and had no chemistry with anyone.

During the six months before Firebrand opened on Broadway, four hit musicals opened: Song of Norway, Bloomer Girl, On the Town, and Up in Central Park. Nine days before Firebrand closed, Carousel opened. Oklahoma! was still running very strongly, the inane but popular Follow the Girls was drawing customers, and Carmen Jones had just closed after a long run, having proved that serious opera could work on Broadway. Little wonder that the Firebrand reviews were mostly outright pans, and audiences preferred to see the competition. Some of the critics recognized that Weill had written excellent music, but they were all too aware that the performance was not doing the music justice.

Weill fans curious about the score have received a few hints over the years, including Lenya's recording of her one big song, "Sing Me Not a Ballad"; some demos by Gershwin and Weill on a record called Ira Gershwin Loves to Rhyme, long out of print; a medley on Volume II of Ben Bagley's Kurt Weill Revisited; and, most tantalizingly, 38 minutes of excerpts on the 1996 release Kurt Weill on Broadway (now out of print), conducted by John McGlinn, with Thomas Hampson and Elizabeth Futral singing Cellini and Angela.

Some of the show's problems are evident from listening to the new Capriccio recording. Three major threads - political intrigue; Cellini's conflicts between his political passions, his artistic passion, and his sexual passion; and sex farce - coexist with none of them getting fully realized. Similarly, the tone shifts frequently, from lightly satirical operetta, mocking itself in a self-aware fashion, to darkly satirical operetta to grandiose operetta. The first two work together well enough, but sudden switches from comedy or satire to seriousness leave us unsure whether the heavy stuff is meant to be taken satirically. Judging from Weill's orchestrations, my guess is that some of the more romantic sections were meant to be lightly satirical as well as romantic. But it's hard to think that this was his intention with the climactic duet for Cellini and Angela, which is not helped by Gershwin's lyric ("Love is my enemy/My beloved enemy/And you, my love, are love").

Judging from this recording, which includes some dialogue, the problems also included a good deal of silly, unfunny dialogue; little real plot, without much character development to make up for its absence; little new music in Act Two; comedy numbers for the Duke that were at best mediocre and at worst annoying; and the undramatic final scene that Anderson and Gordon had insisted on.

Despite these problems, much of the music is enchanting. There is a weak overture (orchestrated and perhaps arranged by Ted Royal, who came in to help the rushed Weill) that utilizes some of the least interesting melodies. But the first scene, familiar to those who know the McGlinn excerpts, might well raise your hopes that what follows will be a masterpiece. Interestingly, this scene is reminiscent of the final scene of The Threepenny Opera: a crowd gathers to witness a hanging, but the condemned man ends up being pardoned. In the wealth of melody that fills this scene, the choral "Come to Florence" is particularly catchy.

Other highlights include "You're Far Too Near Me," a charmingly jumpy waltz depicting the nervous attraction of Cellini and Angela; the Duchess's "Sing Me Not a Ballad," which combines a lovely, sensuous melody with a comic lyric; "You Have to Do What You Do Do," written for but unused in Lady in the Dark, and effectively recycled here; and "Love Is My Enemy," Cellini and Angela's climactic duet, which does sound out of place but is striking on its own terms. Gershwin's lyrics range from clever to awkward.

The recording comes from a BBC broadcast of a concert given in January 2000. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the BBC Symphony and BBC Singers, with opera singers in three of the leads: baritone Rodney Gilfry as Cellini, soprano Lori Ann Fuller as Angela, and mezzo Felicity Palmer (who played Mrs. Lovett in the recent Royal Opera Sweeney Todd and will play the Countess in The Queen of Spades in February at the Met) as the Duchess. George Dvorsky, known for his work in musicals, is the Duke.

The concert seems to have been heavily staged but with everyone on book; you can often hear the performers turning the pages of their scripts. There is plenty of audience response, as well as a rather silly narration in rhymed couplets. Though well-performed by Simon Russell Beale, this is annoying enough to listen to the first time, much less repeatedly. For continuity purposes (and because a couple of times the narration is spoken over music), it probably would have been impossible to cut it from the recording, but Capriccio might have put it on individual tracks so you could program past it most of the time. Perhaps because of the narration, there is no synopsis in the booklet, which includes the text heard on the recording as well as extensive, informative notes on the work itself and on the textual decisions that were made for the concert. Unfortunately, the typeface is so small as to be almost unreadable.

I suspect that this performance came off better in the hall than it does on CD. It sounds as if it was not miked with the possibility of a CD release in mind. Interesting orchestral detail comes through periodically, suggesting that Davis shaped this performance carefully, but too often the orchestra just does not come through strongly enough for the orchestrations to be heard to full advantage. There are also times when the voices don't have enough presence. It would seem tough to make this happen for both the orchestra and the voices, but the sound here manages it.

Gilfry sings Cellini's very demanding music solidly and sometimes hits the right dramatic notes as well. But too often his performance is monochromatic, lacking variety and specificity of phrasing. There are some very nice moments, but he tends to sound heavy-handed when he should be light, and aggressive when he should be tender. It may be that onstage he did things that gave his performance an expressiveness it often lacks when just listening to it. Perhaps in a full production with more rehearsal time, he would become more comfortable and find the charm and variety he lacks a bit on this recording.

Fuller certainly has the voice for Angela. Early on her singing sometimes sounds a bit labored, but she improves considerably as the performance continues. Her reading of the dialogue is generally awkward.

Dvorsky struggles with a role that is weakly written and for which he seems miscast both vocally and dramatically. I think of Dvorsky as a tenor, but in the cast list he is described as a bass. Perhaps this description is Weill's regarding the music's range. The role does not require an operatic bass, but some of it lies a bit low for Dvorsky. He manages to get the notes but doesn't always articulate them effectively.

Though usually a fine performer, Dvorsky doesn't convey the right comic persona for the Duke. Perhaps following suggestions from the director, he resorts to silly vocal mannerisms in his dialogue, though he sings the music straightforwardly. Admittedly, some of the Duke's material just doesn't work.

The Duchess is perhaps the funniest and most charming of the leading characters, but the role is the smallest. Palmer, sounding nothing like Lenya, does well with "Sing Me Not a Ballad" and with the little singing she has elsewhere (though she is overpowered at times by the male quartet who accompany her on the repeat of the "Ballad" refrain). Her delivery of the dialogue, though game, is a little heavy-handed and self-conscious. Still, she is likeable.

The supporting roles are done nicely enough. Perhaps because three of the principals were American, everyone uses American accents, which works fairly well. The BBC Singers produce a big sound but could use better diction and more rhythmic vitality.

This recording is a must, of course, for Weill completists and students of the American musical. For others, it may not be so necessary. And yet most of the music is good enough to make you wonder whether the right production could make a case for the show onstage. There are times when the fertility of Weill's melodic invention becomes intoxicating. These sections achieve the magic that Weill and Gershwin must have had in mind. Even though this recording is imperfect, the quality of the music does come through.

Photos of Kurt Weill and Boston production courtesy of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music, New York. Used by permission. For more information, visit

Photo of Ira Gershwin courtesy of the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts. Used by permission. For more information, visit

Past Rialto Columns

Search What's New on the Rialto