Has any art work ever seemed to contradict its creator as much as Igor Stavinsky's bracing Histoire du Soldat, which is getting a rare production this week courtesy of New Ballet Ensemble and the CODA program at Rhodes College?
Stravinsky opinion: music expresses only itself. "I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, not a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, [or] a phenomenon of nature," he said. Obviously the game-changing composer didn't mean that music couldn't be expressive in any way, only that it is "supra-personal, and super-real, and as such beyond verbal meanings and verbal descriptions. He rejected the "ad absurdum" notion that passages of music might have specific transcendant meanings or that "exact sets of correlatives" exist between a composer's feelings and the music he creates.
In Histoire du Soldat a blue-collar Faust redux that unites dance, musical composition, and a spoken narrative, Stravinsky's atmospheric score sets the pace and mood for the story of a soldier who trades his violin to the Devil in exchange for an enchanted book— an infernal Napoleon Hill paperback if you will— that contains all the glittering secrets of wealth accumulation. Music becomes an environment. Time signatures change like weather. Marching rhythm's struggle against melodic bursts that explode in the air. The conductor's baton becomes a machete hacking its way through humid jungles of sound.
In his program notes conductor Joe Montelione writes:
[Histoire du Soldat] can be enjoyed and re-enjoyed on many levels — for its tunes, its bright instrumental color, its cunning formal structures, and its curiously moving drama. They all work together. The piece gets under its listener’s skin. On the simplest level, the fiddle represents the Soldier’s soul and the percussion the machinations of the Devil. In the final number, the violin (representing the soldier) and percussion (representing the devil) start out together. At the chilling close, the violin fades out, as the percussion grows more intense."
That's a lot of expression.
"Stravinsky writes in his score that this piece is to be played, to be read and to be danced," Montelione wrote in an email. "I wanted our production of this piece to involve those three elements; but never one overshadowing the other, but rather working in a synergistic approach to creating a new style of concert performance. So, this concert is not just an orchestral concert, or just a dance piece nor just a theatrical work."
The challenge for the dancers, according to New Ballet Ensemble's founding director Katie Smythe is to "reflect the script without being literal in our movements, to illuminate the musical score while remaining somewhat abstract and not overpowering theatrical and musical performance with dance. To build a harmonious and contiguous story for the audience so that they may be transported without distraction."
Stravinsky broke music into its linguistic parts and reassembled it like the French New Wave would do with cinema nearly half-a-century later. After the 1959 premiere of Hiroshima Mon Amor Jean-Luc Godard described his film as "Stravinsky + Faulkner." Histoire du Soldat is music on the verge of becoming literature. And even more than that. Catch it while you can.
L’HISTOIRE DU SOLDAT
January 28, 2012
Christian Brothers University Theater
This sounds intriguing
The 7-Shot Symphony mixes seven classic myths from around the world (Norse, West African, Greek, and Mesopotamian cultures) and sets them against the backdrop of America's Old West. The characters Odin and Gilgamesh, for example, are the sheriff and mayor of the frontier land and Orpheus is a cowboy whose fiancee, Eurydice, is a mail-order bride from the "old country."
I heard nothing but good things about this show from a friend who saw it when it premiered in Minneapolis.
6:00 p.m. tomorrow. Wednesday, January 25. Hardie Auditorium, Rhodes College.
It's been said— usually by tipsy revelers — that Champagne coupes were originally modeled from life-casts of Marie Antoinette's breasts. That's complete bunk of course but a cocktail party's success isn't measured as much by the potency of its potables as it is by the effervescence of the conversations they unlock. Surely this trivial anti-fact, trotted out with a fresh round of drinks, has fulfilled its lurid purpose and facilitated more than a few private fittings. It's the same intoxicating combination of hooch and sexual tomfoolery that makes Johann Strauss's comic opera Die Fledermaus such a guilty pleasure. Well, that and a relentlessly perfect score with all the fizz and flavor of a freshly popped bottle of 1928 Krug
Nothing exceeds like excess and Die Fledermaus is a textbook example of abundant pointlessness. It's a sprawling, stumbling, slurring, fondling bourgeois fantasy about booze, fraternity pranks, sexual indiscretions (all badly managed), and even more booze. And jail. And weird disguises, and things of that nature. Opera Memphis's production under the direction of Ned Canty, the company's new head honcho, is a giddy, gimmick-laden good time. It's easy on they eyes and candy for the ears.
Canty comes to Opera by way of the theater. His background is Shakespeare. Comedy is his specialty and he's promised Memphis audiences to go out of his way to find the best singers who are also the best actors. So far, so good. As promised, the new director suits the action to the word and isn't afraid of a little burlesque. For Die Fledermaus he's populated the stage at Germantown Performing Arts Center with a charismatic cast of singers who collectively transform Strauss's comedy into a three-and-a-half hour Carol Burnett sketch complete with near crack-ups.
Elizabeth Reiter shows off her facility with high notes and low comedy as Adele, the socially-climbing chambermaid. She may be the brightest spot in an already well-lit room. Caroline Worra and Dominic Armstrong are also perfectly paired as the promiscuous Eisensteins, a husband and wife whose middle class values are always at odds with their sexual appetites.
In 2011 Opera Memphis launched a campaign to convince Justin Timberlake to make a guest apperance as Frosh, the drunken jailer. That didn't work out, but Canty's second choice is no less inspired: Ann Marie Hall. The local actor's comic gifts are well chronicled and she channels Harpo Marx, Foster Brooks, and every bumbling cop who ever stepped in front of Mack Sennett's movie camera. Timberlake would have been a coups but alone Hall's gags are worth the price of admission. The rest is so much chocolate gravy.
Canty has said he'll never apologize for opera. He wants to find interesting ways to approach and celebrate the form's excess and absurdity, funny wigs and all. Mission accomplished on that score too. There may not be any circus elephants stunt-copulating to entertain Prince Orlofsky's guests, but it's easy to watch the party onstage and believe that might actually be happening in the wings.
Lushly-imagined but relatively simple scenic elements pack a lot of brush strokes into a few deft gestures. A giant funhouse mirror sits down right, sharing space with obscenely large reproductions of voluptuous Renaissance nudes and an over-the-top frolic between nymphs and centaurs set into what absolutely has to be the hugest gilded frame in town. It's all too much and that's just right.
Still, one can easily over-indulge on sweets and sometimes Canty's production threatens to pop its buttons. It could have been streamlined by cutting a superfluous, show-stealing guest appearance by the Stax Academy singers who nail an a capella medley of gospel and soul that climaxes with a hot do-wop interpretation of Isaac Hayes's "Theme from Shaft." It's a sugary pallate clenser between desert courses and jarringly incongruous. But the kids are so good it's tempting to call for an encore.
Canty introduced the second act by announcing a contest. All of the party guests, he said, were dressed as characters from famous operas and ten free tickets would be donated to Memphis City Schools for every letter Opera Memphis received correctly identifying ten of them. Game on, right? I immediately recognized Otello from Otello, Rigoletto from Rigoletto, Cio-Cio San from Madame Butterfly, and Escamillo the Toreador from Carmen. Carmen was there too. Salome was easy because she carried John the Baptist's head on a plate. And who could miss Brunhilde? But was that Siegfried with her? Was the guy in the three-cornered hat Don Giovani or just some other guy in a three-cornered hat? And will I get credit for guessing Falstaff even if I'm wrong because that big guy with the beard is undeniably Falstaffian? There I was, a compulsive trivia geek gawking at a pair of women in short terry cloth robes, trying desperately to remember whether or not Phillip Glass had ever set an opera at the Playboy mansion, with absolutely no idea what was transpiring in Die Fledermaus.
Oh well, it's not like it's hard to catch back up with the plot.
Program notes recall Canty's first encounter with Die Fledermaus, working on a production directed by the famously catty Match Game regular Charles Nelson Reilly. "Charles taught me three important things," he says.
1. A prop in comedy must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
2. One should always have a backup toupee in your car in case of a surprise photo shoot.
3. Opera has a capacity to delight an audience like no other art form.
I don't know if #3 is true or not but Canty is obviously a believer and with Die Fledermaus he, his cast, Maestro Stephen Osgood, and the musicians of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra make an awfully strong case. Any cork and collar popping is fully justified.
For ticket information and details, here's the link.
Holy cow, what a weekend. There's so much going on, I hardly know where to start. Okay, how about we start with vibrators?
•In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play). A fun and funny piece from Sarah Ruhl. You can read my review of the Circuit Playhouse production here. And trust me, if you go to see this this weekend you'll also want to make reservations for...
• Next to Normal at Playhouse on the Square: I caught a preview performance of Next to Normal last night. It felt like this musical about mental illness and raw emotions might still be growing, that some of the actors were still keeping an arm's length between them and the characters they are playing. With material this full of pain it's easy to understand why there might be some trouble giving over to it but I suspect that the stellar cast featuring David Foster and Leigh Bray Nichols as Dan and Diane Goodman, will tighten up quickly.
Kelsey Hopkins and Corbin WIlliams are especially good as the Goodman's gifted but increasingly drug-dependent daughter and Henry the sweet stoner who swears he'll stand by her.
This isn't a light entertainment. Don't expect big production numbers. Do expect to be sucked down a rabbit hole into a dark place where every pinpoint of light feels like a ray of hope.
• Prison Stories: Prison Stories is an ongoing project conducted by master storyteller Elaine Blanchard. Blanchard meets regularly with women in prison and helps them tell their stories. The results are often surprising and say a lot, not only about the penal system, but about the community in which it exists. Prison Stories runs this Friday and Saturday night only at . TheatreSOUTH in the basement of First Congregational Church. 8:00 p.m. Suggested donation $20.
A staged reading from an earlier installment of Prison Stories
•Die Fledermaus: Johann Strauss's popular comedy marks Opera Memphis's new General Director Ned Canty's directoral debut. A preview performance broadcast over WKNO radio suggests that this one could be a lot of fun.
• 'Night Mother: A one-night benefit for the New Moon Theatre Company: This scrappy little indie has been doing some exceptional work lately. This would be a perfectly good time to check out a revival of one of their recent productions a toss them a buck or two so they can keep dusting off classics, and reviving unique historical experiments.
•The Boys Next Door: I haven't seen this show about the intellectually-challenged residents of a group home in more than 20-years and am looking forward to the GCT revival. That's really all I have to say about that.
And opening next weekend...
• The Importance of Being Ernest: I always think I'm tired of this classic and frequently revived show. And then I see it again. And I laugh all over again. Theatre Memphis's revival under the direction of Jerry Chipman with Jude Knight in the role of Lady Bracknell promises to deliver the goods. In a handbag. Ordinary. With wooden handles.
I left Memphis, my adopted home, for Minneapolis in 2006. I was sad to leave, but excited to move to a city full of theatre. Since living in Minneapolis, I have seen world class theatre from Tony Award winning companies that reside here, theatre that had moved me and made me grow. Last week I was lucky enough to see Memphis' own Jordan Nichols in the Touring Broadway 25th Anniversary of Les Miserables performing at Minneapolis' Orpheum Theatre. Witnessing this amazing prodution I was filled with emotions and reminded of one of the reasons Memphis became my adopted home - the talent is adundant there. Jordan was spectacular, the show was beautiful and moving, I laughed; I cried. I didn't want it to end.
I was also reminded that I didn't need to leave Memphis for world class theatre. It exists right there! Memphis should be proud of its theatre and the professionals that live and breathe theatre in Memphis. And Memphis should be extremely proud of its son, Jordan Nichols, his talent is endless.
This show could be good.
I made a short video of Joyce Cobb as Billie Holiday in
Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grillat The Hattiloo Theatre. Enjoy.
&iegreat year for Memphis dancers thanks in no small part to some great headline-grabbing performances by Ballet Memphis. 2011, however, was the year of Memphis Jookin' and Charles Lil' Buck Riley whose molten flow is informed by sounds from Orange Mound and shot through with classical sensibilities he honed working with Katie Smythe and the New Ballet Ensemble. Madonna has spoken. And so has Yo-Yo Ma. And Margret Thatcher. And even Dance Magazine.
Best. Year. Ever?
I don't know about all that but 2012 has its work cut out.
"A gentleman is any man who wouldn't hit a woman... with his hat on."— From The Club
Ann Marie Hall doesn't mince words.
"We're not just sexist, we're racist too," she says archly doting on her production of The Club, a slyly insightful if somewhat obscure musical review compiled by poet Eve Merriam with choreography by Courtney Oliver and Jackie Nichols. The title of the show refers literally to Gentlemen's clubs at the turn of the 20th-Century where certain privileged males of Anglo extraction could escape family obligations to gamble, drink, and conduct private business. More broadly it also alludes to the white male privilege exemplified in period songs like, "String of Pearls," "The Juice of the Grape," and "Following in Father's Footsteps."
Sights and sounds from The Club, 2012
This isn't Hall's first encounter with The Club, which showcases an ensemble of female performers impersonating men of means. In 1980 she played Freddy in the show's regional premier at Circuit Playhouse and revived the role a year later for Playhouse on the Square.
"It was very popular," she says.
A short comic opera could probably be written about Opera Memphis's Tuesday night preview of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus at the Clark Opera Center. The turnout was unexpectedly large but the caterer was in a wreck. Nobody was injured but the van was smashed up as was the food and there were many zombie-eyed guests wandering the lobby with a desperate "where's the cheese tray" look. Fortunately the preview performances were as crisp and bubbly as the pre-show Champagne.
Here's an audio sample of maestro Steven Osgood working with his cast on an ensemble passage and getting some great performances.
The preview performances were broadcast live by WKNO radio.
Die Fledermaus is at Germantown Performing Arts Center Jan 21 & 24, 2012