As champions of Kurt Weill always point out, there is more to his catalog than “The Threepenny Opera.” By now fanciers of vocal music may recognize “Marie Galante” as the title of a show that featured a clutch of bizarre songs in French, though any notions of the action and the characters probably remain vague at best. More obscure by a wide margin is the Broadway operetta “The Firebrand of Florence.” Even aficionados who can hum along with the infectious little come-on “Sing Me Not a Ballad,” which is occasionally performed, might be hard pressed to name the source.
On Thursday the fog that hangs over “Marie Galante” will lift as Opéra Français de New York presents the American premiere at Florence Gould Hall, with Isabel Bayrakdarian in the enigmatic title role. Yves Abel will conduct; the chamber production is by the directing team of Jean-Philippe Clarac and Olivier Deloeuil. And in March the Collegiate Chorale will rekindle “The Firebrand of Florence” in a concert performance at Alice Tully Hall starring Nathan Gunn as the flamboyant 16th-century Florentine goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, the firebrand of the title.
Both projects are music to the ears of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music in New York, which lends enthusiastic support to scholars and performers in the form of grants, advice and access to its indispensable archives. As Kim H. Kowalke, the president of the foundation, explained recently, “Weill’s insistence on seeing each stage work as a new challenge and a new approach to the art of musical theater inevitably means that hearing a complete show gives songs a dimension that they lack when taken out of context.”
But the converse is also true. Mr. Kowalke points to The New Yorker of June 10, 1944, in which Weill was said to be elated by news that a song from “Marie Galante” had taken on a life of its own as a theme song of the French Resistance. “It is called ‘J’Attends un Navire’ — ‘I Am Waiting for a Ship,’ ” the report continued, “and in the play was sung by a lonely prostitute, marooned in Panama, who longed to get back to Bordeaux (ah, the French drama!). As sung these days in the cafes of Paris, it connotes invasion barges.”
Festive as the title may sound, “Marie Galante” — based on a novel by Jacques Deval — turns out to be a gritty shocker. It opened to mixed reviews on Dec. 22, 1934, when Weill was in Paris, on the run from the Nazis, and closed the first week of January 1935. (A Jewish cantor’s son, Weill was born in Germany in 1900. He got out just in time, in 1933. In 1935 he landed in New York, where he died in 1950.)
A foundling and born sex kitten, Marie blossoms quickly, giving herself freely at first, just for pleasure. Then she starts taking money because she has to. When a ship captain dumps her in Panama, she lucks into higher fees spying but pays with her life.
Mr. Clarac, the director, relates “Marie Galante” to a tradition of film noir that continued in France long past the war years, citing titles like “Le Quai des Brumes,” “Pépé le Moko” and “Les Orgueilleux.” But it is also very much a product of its time and place.
“The plays in Paris then were not nice and pink and sweet,” Mr. Clarac said recently from Marie’s home port of Bordeaux, which is his home also. “The idea was that stories set in a very simple, poor, low-class milieu achieve a kind of universality. Everyone is kind of blasé, tired, washed out. There are no happy characters in ‘Marie Galante.’ Panama may sound exotic, but for those who live there, it is not. It’s superhot and superhumid, nobody has any money and everyone is in exile.”
Several songs from “Marie Galante” popularized by Weill specialists like Teresa Stratas and Ute Lemper are sung not by Marie but by other drifters and misfits. The lyrics, by Deval and Roger Fernay, are rough stuff, conjuring nightmares of sexual degradation, mutilation, a boy-eating ogre, a train bound for glory and a fairy-tale king who cheats on the queen. Weill’s music gives them punch and edge and sometimes a desperate longing. His score also features a ravishing instrumental number, which Fernay at an unknown later date retrofitted with lyrics as “Youkali: Tango Habañera.” The vocal version was published in Paris in 1946. The New York production assigns it to Marie, an unauthorized choice but one that seems hard to fault.
To Ms. Bayrakdarian the tango is “the song and dance of the common people, the oppressed and disadvantaged, helpless strangers in a strange land, desperately seeking escape.”
“Marie embodies these qualities,” Ms. Bayrakdarian continued. “She is fiery but inconsolable, always hoping for salvation, for Utopia. As for ‘J’Attends un Navire,’ I believe the song is her mantra to distance herself from her harsh reality, the song she sings to herself every time she has a new customer.”
The acid style Weill had cultivated in Germany translated to Paris in the ’30s with ease. In New York he had to change his stripes radically. The six musicals he wrote for Broadway are graced with nostalgic standards like “Speak Low,” “September Song” and “My Ship,” which despite its title is no replay of “J’Attends un Navire.” “The Firebrand of Florence,” third of the six, was intended as the commercial operetta to end all commercial operettas, swirling with amorous intrigue.
The hero is painted in the same not wholly implausible fantasy mode Berlioz employed in “Benvenuto Cellini,” another problem child of the repertory. Handy with a dagger, he is on trial for murder, but no one much cares about the victim, and there are priceless works of art a powerful patron would hate to see left incomplete.
Weill gave the score his all, pouring forth an abundance of lush melody over the daffy, crystal-cut lyrics of Ira Gershwin (“Gallantry I find archaic/Poetry I find prosaic”). There are flights in romantic and ironic veins, with extended musical sequences that verge on the operatic. There’s a public execution that anticipates Bernstein’s auto-da-fé fiesta in “Candide.” There’s a show trial that plays like a spoof on Weill’s own “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” with a spooky interlude (“You Have to Do What You Do Do”) that just keeps rolling along like a minor-key parody of “Ol’ Man River.”
Broadway did not like it. The show opened on March 22, 1945, and closed in April. Writing in The New York Times, Lewis Nichols thought it inferior to the play it was based on, by the forgotten Edwin Justus Mayer, fondly remembered from its Broadway run 20 years before. The new show lacked “sparkle, drive, or just plain nervous energy,” Nichols wrote.
“It is a little like an old-fashioned operetta,” he concluded, “slowly paced and ambling.” Not an unfair assessment, but we may be more forgiving now.
“The Firebrand of Florence” disappeared without so much as an original-cast album to remember it by, unrecorded until the European premiere in 2000, a London concert performance by BBC Radio 3, released on CD by Capriccio. Rhymed narration replaces the book scenes, to facetious effect, but the score makes quite a splash, evoking by turns Gilbert and Sullivan, Sigmund Romberg, Warren and Dubin, “Kiss Me, Kate,” “Kismet” and perhaps “Man of La Mancha.” As Cellini, Rodney Gilfry rises to the matinee-idol standards of an Alfred Drake.
As associate producer of special projects for the Collegiate Chorale, the composer and lyricist Edward Barnes is always looking for material that will appeal to opera and music-theater fans alike. Alerted to “The Firebrand of Florence” by the Weill foundation, he scented a winner.
“One reason Weill interests me,” Mr. Barnes said recently, “is that he approaches the commercial theater from a very serious music background, thus opening doors to Bernstein and Sondheim.” And in Mr. Gunn’s star turn as Lerner and Loewe’s preening Lancelot in the New York Philharmonic’s concert performances of “Camelot” last season, Mr. Barnes saw the makings of the perfect Cellini.
Mr. Gunn hesitated, but not for long. “They sent me the score,” he said. “I went through it slowly to see if it was well in my range, and I read through it thinking: ‘It’s a silly love story, kind of fun. Why not?’ ”
Louis Armstrong’s gravelly rendition of “Mack the Knife,” Mr. Gunn said, is one of his “all-time favorites, ever.” He has long wanted to sing Weill, but dropping a set of songs into a recital, as many classical singers do, strikes him as a hackneyed thing to do, and there has never been another occasion.
“Then,” he said, “I looked at ‘Firebrand of Florence’ and thought: ‘Wow! It’s the perfect opportunity not only to do Kurt Weill but to put the music in the context of a whole piece. What a great way to introduce myself to him.’ ”
Asked if there was other Weill on his wish list, Mr. Gunn had a ready answer: “ ‘Threepenny Opera’ would be great.”