When Stravinsky and opera, or Stravinsky and theater, are mentioned in the same breath, the first things coming to mind would probably be Rake’s Progress or the theatricality of the ballets as produced by Diaghilev. Or maybe the Oedipus Rex he did with Cocteau.
Oakland Opera Theater is staging two somewhat lesser-known Stravinsky works at their Oakland Metro Operahouse, a couple blocks north of Broadway at 630-3rd St. off Jack London Square: L’histoire du soldat (A Soldier’s Story) and Renard, pieces where the music shares, in different ways, the stage with actors, a narrator or singers—and most certainly, acrobatic dancers.
L’histoire du soldat, the later piece (1918), plays first, and by far longer. A story by the sadly forgotten Swiss writer Ramuz (Stravinsky sat out the War in Switzerland) about the fantastic fate of a soldier off the battelefields of World War One, this production uses a text and staging updated to the Iraq War, in couplets, by British playwright Rebecca Lenkiewicz. It’s meant to be narrated and acted out, sometimes like a pantomime to narration, which mix was originally expressed “lue, jouee et dansee,” read, played and danced. There’s no singing, a casual fact that confused some of the audience opening night, coming to the opera and forced to wait till after intermission for the first trill of the evening.
It’s a wry account, in between tall tale and morality play, of a soldier on his way home (an excellent Ben Jones, later singing in Renard), who trades his fiddle to the devil (a slick, cunning Matthias Bossi as Nick), who comes sliding out, back to audience, at his Baghdadi bazaar stand, piled with pewter cups, skulls and bones, which veiled dancers examine and caper with. In return he gets a book, which reveals the future—the economic future. War and buying and selling; so far a familiar scenario, with a little folk supernatural thrown in. Beats what’s playing around the block onscreen in the multiplex.
Nick entices Joe the soldier to a three-day spree at his well-stocked house. When Joe emerges and makes it home, he finds himself unrecognized, shunned; it’s been three years, not three days. His girl’s married another and become a mother, thinking he was dead. And his own mother’s gone crazy with grief, a madwoman.
Joe tries out Nick’s book, becoming an inspirational speaker on personal wealth, but can’t cut it. He wanders back to the theater of war, into a bar in the Green Zone, where he hears a brigadier general (David Hunt, the anxious Rooster of Renard) offer the hand of his daughter to anyone who can awaken her from a strange malaise. Joe does it with his fiddle, won back from Nick, followed by an extraordinary long dance, sometimes a wry pas de deux, in a pastiche of different styles, featuring deft Abrigal Munn as “Princess,” brilliantly choreographed by Shannon Gaines. Joe fends off Nick with his fiddle. They’re happy, but is being stuck in the Green Zone really OK?
RENARD’s an earlier (1916) piece, opening with a short, smart addition of melismatics to chamber orchestra by sparkling soprano Kimarie Torre, Stravinsky’s brief “Printemps,” grafted on as matins for the barnyard, as the Rooster juggles blades, posing like a samurai in a kabuki mie, poised over the henhouse, a sliding coop. This’s asimpler tale from Russian folklorist Afanasyev, played out with every sideshow gimmick by a great team of chickens, vixens, an acrobatic cat and goat, and an amazing ribbon-dancing aerialist Fox, Breanna Noack, while a fine ensemble of male vocalists (tenors Jones and Darron Flagg, baritone Igor Vieira, bass Richard Mix) wax lyrically with the valiant chamber orchestra. Throttled, gnawed, chased across a slack rope, the Rooster finally triumphs over the Fox with the help of his friends, the pistol-packing, knife-wielding Cat and Goat. (Erin Schrader and Jodi Power). Artistic director Tom Dean’s stage direction and Gaines’ choreography carry the day, the talented performers—many of those onstage with circus background—showing charm and skill, all giving the evening that rare taste, rare in the theater itself, of theatricality, of trouping.
There’re difficulties. The accoustics of the newer venue, in so many ways an improvement over its predecessor on Broadway, sometimes made a stalwart Kirya Traber (from BULRUSHER)—and even Jones—inaudible when the band played. There was a feeling of a lag, somehow, throughout L’HISTOIRE, with the music, which alternates with, occasionally overlapping, the action sometimes seeming like incidental music rather than a shifting, contrapuntal agent which sets the acted scenes off, even driving them.
Maybe RENARD, the real opera—though short, sweet and to the droll point—should’ve gone first, to relax the audience for the leaner, less pyrotechnic and more complex mix of music and staging of L’HISTOIRE. As was noted in the program, these are both from an intermezzo in Stravinsky’s career, RENARD looking back and L’HISTOIRE forward, to the composer’s famed Neo-Classical period.
Oakland Opera Theater
Metro Operahouse, 630 3rd St., Oakland
Thurs.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m.
through Nov. 2