Biblical Drama in four parts by Franz Werfel.
First performed in English adaptation as The Eternal Road, English translation by Ludwig Lewisohn.
Sam Jaffe as the Adversary, from the original production.
English title: The Eternal Road (literally, The Road of Promise)
Cast: Singing roles -- Rabbi (tenor), Eliezer (baritone), White Angel (tenor), 2 Dark Angels (tenor, baritone) , Abraham (baritone), Sarah, Isaac, Jacob (tenor), Rachel (soprano), Joseph (baritone), His Brothers, Moses (baritone), Miriam (soprano), Voice of God (baritone), Angel of Death (bass), Ruth (mezzo-soprano), Boaz (baritone), Reaper (baritone), Saul (baritone), David (tenor), Solomon (baritone), Chananjah (baritone), Jeremiah (high baritone), Voice of the Angel of the End of Days; double chorus, SATB.
Speaking roles -- Pious Men, President, Elders, Women, and Boys of the Congregation, The Estranged One and his son, The Adversary, The Timid Soul, The Rich Man, The Watchman, The Youth, The Strange Girl, The Witch of Endor, Bath-Sheba, Uriah, Zedekiah, Pashur.
Orchestra: 2.1.3 (E-flat cl).2 bass cl.1; 184.108.40.206; 2 pianos, harp, organ, guitar, timp, perc; strings.
Duration: full evening
Performance Rights and Rentals: All territories: EAMC
First Production: January 7, 1937, New York, Manhattan Opera House, Max Reinhardt, dir., Isaac van Grove, cond.
A massive spectacle, The Eternal Road is nothing less than the story of the Jews as set forth in the Old Testament. Beginning in a synagogue, where a group of modern Jews has gathered to escape persecution, the Rabbi begins reading from the Torah, portions of which motivate the succeeding scenes: the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel, Moses, Ruth, Saul and David, and Jeremiah, among others. The action moves back and forth from biblical re-enactments to the synagogue, with some overlap. Throughout, the congregants comment on the Bible stories and may even participate, using the stories to illuminate their present situation.
The congregants—-the President, the Pious One, the Estranged One, the Adversary, et al.—-have gathered in the synagogue. The Rabbi has gone to plead for mercy from the local authorities. When he returns, he warns everyone that they must be prepared for more persecution and exile.
Part I: The Patriarchs
The Rabbi begins to read the story of Abraham. On the main part of the stage, an angel appears to Abram and Sarah and tells them Sarah will have a son, although she has passed childbearing age. She reacts with disbelief, but then she gets pregnant and bears Isaac. The Voice of God instructs Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, but then the Chorus stops Abraham just before he carries out the order, and the Voice congratulates him on his devotion. The Rabbi begins the story of Isaac's son Jacob and Rachel, who sing a love duet. In the synagogue, the Estranged One explains to his thirteen-year-old son why they have not come to the synagogue before as the other congregants join the discussion. Then the story of Jacob's son Joseph and his brothers begins as the congregants continue their debate over its significance. The Rabbi continues to read, and the story unfolds. Joseph’s brothers attack him and sell him into slavery, but he goes on to become a powerful official in Egypt. When a famine strikes, the brothers take their father to Egypt and meet Joseph again. Then the Angel tells Jacob his time has come and he must die. The congregants continue their discussion, as the Thirteen-Year-Old announces that he is Joseph.
Part II: Moses
The Rabbi sketches the growth of the descendants of Abraham and Isaac and explains that a new pharaoh in Egypt has begun to persecute them. The pharaoh decrees that all first-born Israelite sons are to be drowned in the Nile. A young Israelite, Miriam, sings of how she saved her baby brother by hiding him in a basket among the reeds, where he was found by an Egyptian princess. The boy, Moses, grows up to be a powerful official, although he considers himself a “stranger in a strange land.” He is enraged at Pharaoh’s cruelty toward the Israelites and murders an overseer. He runs away to avoid reprisal; while hiding in the desert he hears a voice from a burning bush. The Voice tells Moses he is to lead the Israelites and free them from bondage. Moses is dubious and enlists his brother Aaron to help. The two appear before Pharaoh and Moses performs the miracles God has given him power to do. Pharaoh is unimpressed. In the synagogue, the congregants describe the ten plagues visited by God on Egypt, followed by the Israelites’ escape. Then the Adversary attacks God, saying that he has consistently mistreated the Jews throughout history. The other congregants threaten to kill him, but the President insists that he be evicted from the synagogue. Order is restored only when the Rabbi resumes the story of the Ten Commandments. While Moses communes with God on the mountain, the Israelites worship a golden calf. God and Moses are both enraged, and Moses and his inner circle try to figure out how to deal with the refractory Israelites, who are unhappy with life in the desert and want to return to Egypt. Then the scouts report that they are approaching the Promised Land. Moses learns that he will die before the Israelites reach their new home. Joshua prepares to lead the people as Moses prepares to die.
Part III: Kings
A young man enters the synagogue with his fiancée, who is not Jewish. She proclaims that she will stay with him despite the risk, and her devotion reminds the Rabbi of the story of Ruth. Ruth, the Gentile widow of a Jew, goes to work for Boaz, an Israelite landowner. She ingratiates herself, and Boaz is smitten; he marries her, and they have a son, Jesse, who becomes the father of David. The Rabbi resumes, reading about the prophet Samuel, who anoints Saul king of Israel but then finds fault with him. Saul’s son, Jonathan, is friends with David, and Saul is afraid that David will supplant him. When the dreaded Philistines attack, David outshines Saul, killing more of the enemy and finally slaying the Philistines’ leader, the giant Goliath. Saul becomes terribly jealous of David and wants to kill him. He goes to the Witch of Endor to conjure up Samuel’s spirit, a grave sin. The Philistines kill Saul and David becomes king; then he, too, sins, arranging to kill one of his generals so he can steal his wife. An angel tells him that his son by Bathsheba will die. But another son, Solomon, succeeds him as king and builds a great temple in Jerusalem. The congregants’ ecstasy at this reminder of past glory is stifled abruptly when they realize that townspeople are gathering outside to storm the synagogue. The congregants hide in the cellar, but the Rabbi, the Estranged One, and the Thirteen-Year-Old remain in the sanctuary.
Part IV: Prophets
As the Estranged One and the Thirteen-Year-Old listen, the Rabbi begins to read from Isaiah and Jeremiah. Jeremiah appears and rails against the impious Israelites, even as the crowd mocks him and buys forbidden idols. The false prophet Hananiah assures the Israelites that they continue to find favor with God. Yet Jeremiah continues to warn the people, who threaten to stone him. King Zedekiah is called on to judge both prophets, and he declares Jeremiah false and exiles him. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon sends an army to conquer Jerusalem. Jeremiah reappears, and the king must decide once again whether or not to follow him. The congregants urge Zedekiah to embrace Jeremiah, who counsels Zedekiah to surrender himself to Nebuchadnezzar so that the Israelites may be spared. Hananiah leads a mob that exhorts Zedekiah to stand firm. At first the king goes to Jeremiah, but he is swayed by the mob and after an internal struggle he sides with Hananiah. The Rabbi recounts the consequences: Jerusalem sacked, the temple burned, Zedekiah blinded, and the Israelites taken into captivity. The congregants plead for the Messiah to appear, as Rachel intercedes for them. The work closes with a procession of the Biblical characters followed by the congregants, all singing Psalm 126 to a triumphant march.
Note: This synopsis is based on the original version by Franz Werfel. In both productions of the work—New York, 1937 and Chemnitz, 1999—the ending was altered.
Naxos CD 8.559402
Karl Dent, James Maddalena, Ted Christopher, Barbara Rearick, Ernst Senff Chor, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Gerard Schwarz, cond. [excerpts performed in English]