We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


James Cusati-Moyer, Michael Cerveris, Tom Pecinka (photo by Dana Astmann)
We rarely tear ourselves away from the vocal world but the prospect of witnessing a multi-disciplinary production from the Yale School of Music and the Yale School of Drama drew us to Zankel Hall on Sunday.  The riveting production of "The Soldier's Tale" by Igor Stravinsky defies criticism.  There was nothing to improve.

The work premiered in 1918 in Lausanne, Switzerland.  It is both timely and timeless.  It originated as a Russian folk tale about a soldier, an Everyman, who is seduced by the devil in many disguises; sadly, he loses in the end when he tries to have it all.  The wanting to "have it all" is what makes the tale timely.

The libretto was written in French by C. F. Ramuz and was given a new translation by Elizabeth Diamond who merits a great deal of credit for a cogent and musical text that scans and rhymes; it was spoken beautifully and playfully by the famous actor Michael Cerveris.  The text went so well with the music that at times it sounded like the very best of rap.

Ms. Diamond, who is resident director at Yale Repertory Theatre, was also responsible for the staging which was as vivid as any dramatic piece could be, with the action between the narrator (here called The Reader) and the actors/dancers compressed between and around the seven musicians at the left of the stage and the narrator's desk at the right.

Although we have seen this work performed as a ballet, we have never seen it danced better than it was in this production.  Tom Pecinka as The Soldier moved with grace or with forcefulness as it was called for; he portrayed a sympathetic character with whom we could identify and for whose bad choices we mourned. When helpless, he lay on his back like a beetle, waving his arms and legs. When he lost to the devil we were moved to tears.

And what a devil that was, portrayed by James Cusati-Moyer!  He was seductive and crafty, then brutal and finally triumphant.  With each new disguise he used his unbelievably flexible body in a different manner; we could understand how The Soldier was fooled.   At one point, when he wanted to seduce the young soldier into parting with his fiddle, he matched his steps to the latter's.   Emily Coates was responsible for this incomparable choreography.   Mariko Parker portrayed The Princess and had a lovely duet with The Soldier after he cures her of a mysterious ailment.

Stravinsky's music in this piece is eclectic; he made use of all kinds of popular forms--tangos, waltzes, marches, ragtime and jazz--but it is, at heart, of a classical nature, lyric one moment and ironic the next.  The work is scored for seven musicians and the scoring is sufficiently spare and the musicians sufficiently gifted that we could identify and cherish the contributions made by each one.

We were fortunate enough to hear Ani Kavafian on violin as she played the theme of The Soldier.  The Devil's theme was given over to percussionist Georgi Videnov.  David Shifrin, the Artistic Director of Yale in New York created magic on the clarinet.  Samuel Suggs played the double bass; Michael Zuber took an active part on the bassoon; Mikio Sasaki played the trumpet part (originally scored for cornet); Stephen Ivany was the fine trombonist.

Costume Design by Ilona Somogyi was brilliant especially the multiple costume changes for The Devil.  No credit is listed for the effective make-up but costuming and make-up contributed a great deal to the macabre nature of the piece.  Scenic design by Michael Yeargan was minimalistic;  lighting was by Solomon Weisbard and made use of neon strips along the floor which changed color in a way that added to the mood.

The musicians and dancers/actors were all students or faculty members at Yale, creating "intergenerational art".  The piece has been called a music/dance chamber theater piece.  We call it a five-star triumph.  We would see it again tonight if we could.

© meche kroop

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