The Firebrand of Florence was a rare flop for Kurt Weill in his Broadway period; opening at the Alvin Theater on March 22, 1945, it closed just a little over a month later after achieving an underwhelming 43 performances. While its most famous number, "Sing Me Not a Ballad," survived, the original work disappeared under the weight of Weill's manuscripts for the show with no clear indication of what belonged and what needed to remain "cut." In 1999, the Ohio Light Opera in Wooster presented the first performance of The Firebrand of Florence since 1945, and in 2002, the Kurt Weill Foundation published a critical edition of Firebrand by Joel Galand, the first ever for a Broadway musical. This live, 2000 recording by the BBC Symphony under Andrew Davis featuring Rodney Gilfry and Lori Ann Fuller is from a concert performance prepared from an early version of Galand's edition. The Firebrand of Florence may not be Show Boat, but it is a charming and amusing show that deserves revival based on its excellent music alone.
The story, based on a 1924 play by Edwin Justus Mayer called the The Firebrand, already old hat by 1945, concerns the romantic adventures of sculptor Benvenuto Cellini his model Angela and the Duke and Duchess of Florence. The lyrics by Ira Gershwin are well steeped in Gershwin's usual wiseacre style, rhyming "baffled" with "scaffold" and "da Vinci" with "plump and pinchy." One can easily see why Firebrand missed the audience in 1945 -- the combination of highbrow and lowbrow elements are often at odds with one another and do not fuse so successfully as they do in, say, Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate. The first act love duet between Angela and Cellini, too, is a long slog no matter how one might prune it down, and the beginning of the second act arrives like one waking up from a nap. The ending, likewise, is dramatically weak, although this is a common factor in musicals of that day, even successful ones.
Weill's music is intriguing, however -- it drifts seamlessly between elements of his European style and those familiar from his work for Broadway, and this is rare in Weill post-1938. The role of Cellini is great for Rodney Gilfry, who has a wonderful time singing it; his tremendous energy carries with it several scenes in this performance. Felicity Palmer is also fabulously droll as the cynical, man-hating Duchess of Florence. The live recording, from the Barbican, is clear and well made, though a little bright and glassy at the top, and this effect is particularly unkind to soprano Lori Ann Fuller, who has a central role as Cellini's model and paramour. The performance, designed for radio, is bridged by a narration in verse written by Sam Brookes and delivered by actor Simon Russell Beale. It is sufficiently clever in tone to match Gershwin's ceaselessly punning libretto, but at times it can seem contrived and will not be for all tastes.
A Time Magazine reviewer in 1945 said of the original production of The Firebrand of Florence that "the plot and gags are such spinach that the whole thing turns out to be a musical poached eggs Florentine." This is not far from the truth, but musically, The Firebrand of Florentine remains a pretty tasty dish, and this set is a worthy and welcome addition to Capriccio's ongoing survey of Weill's complete theater works.