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Stravinsky Evening at the Met, Oct 9 '03Sacre, Rossignol, Oedipus


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#1 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 10 October 2003 - 06:19 AM

Music and dance have always had a wary partnership at the Metropolitan Opera; the friction between Balanchine’s American Ballet and the Met has become part of the history of ballet in America. The Stravinsky triple bill at the Met puts the Ballet and the Opera on equal footing; each gets one work as its own, and they share the middle piece. Still, the Opera is on its home turf, doing what it knows best and of the three pieces it’s the concluding opera that delivers the most powerful theater of the evening.

The Stravinsky triple bill (Le Sacre du Printemps, Le Rossignol, Oedipus Rex) was conceived in 1981 to celebrate the centennial of his birth the following year. All the works were directed by John Dexter and designed by David Hockney, so there is a unity of theme. But in this production, the original production’s choreography for Sacre has been replaced by a new version by Doug Varone. He’s altered the libretto, the Chosen One is now a couple.

Like the Shakers, Varone conceives of the authority in this community as held in tandem by a man and a woman. Stomping or flinging themselves about the stage, their inspiration for choosing those selected is sudden, seemingly involuntary. The men and women, almost always separate, form lines at either side of the stage, the Sages move among and outside the line of opposite sex and suddenly crash into them and push three of each into the center. These three whittle down to one in a fatal passing game and in the slow diminution, there are echoes of a dance audition.

Even with the changes in plot, it’s a simple story told in simple dance movements, but this is to the benefit of the music. Valery Gergiev, the Kirov’s maestro, was conducting at a fast, juggernaut pace, and like a complex, gingery sorbet served in an unadorned bowl, the dance allowed you to listen to the music. There’s no point in competing with it; that contest was won already. Varone lets the pressure in the music build up the pressure in the dance, and gets good mileage from unison tapping, drumming, stomping and an exhausted, desperate run in a circle by the entire cast. Interestingly, the place where the choreography feels exposed is in the final dance for the chosen couple, where Varone adds more dance vocabulary in, but not to greater effect; the steps given are swirly and generic. Simple choreography reads strongly in the Met, a cavern that swallows gesture and detail. His Sages are acting for all they are worth, and acting while they dance to their credit, but it just doesn’t read. The house is too large. This Sacre is not a bad version; it’s competent, comprehensible and it lets the music be heard. It has power, what the performance didn’t have was magic.

The Ballet and Opera shared the stage in Le Rossignol, or more accurately, the Opera surrounds the ballet. A couple (Damien Woetzel as the Fisherman, Julie Kent as the Nightingale in roles originally danced by Anthony Dowell and Natalia Makarova) provide the dance action, two singers in the pit provide words to the movement and several other singers and the Opera chorus fill the numerous other roles. Lacking a corps de ballet, Ashton’s work is an expanded without the resources of a corps de ballet to project the stylistic world of the dance. It’s even further circumscribed; it relies solely on the style of the couple and it does this within someone else’s theatrical concept and the limits imposed by décor and blocking. It’s not a good sign that though there are musical preparation credits, assistant direction credits and even Russian diction credits in the program, there is no restaging credit for an uncommon ballet by one of the previous century’s top choreographers. Who taught the dance? Did anyone have responsibility for this ballet? Were the dancers coached at all or did they have to learn it off of a video? It looked as if both of them were relying more on star-power than preparation or coaching on style.

The work hews to the traditional story points, telescoped and told in shorthand for clarity. Kent first appears only as a decorative pair of arms behind a tropical tree, then lifted into view by Woetzel. Her choreography is simple, mostly arabesques and bourrées embellished with the sort of decorative trills that underpin, and in sensitive hands define not just the Nightingale’s character, but Ashton style. She danced well; it’s easy stuff for her, and she does well in feathery roles, but it’s a shame that the role didn’t do more to illuminate either Kent or Ashton. Also a shame that Damien Woetzel looks much the same in Ashton as he does in Balanchine, or for that matter in Martins. Woetzel on stage is an agreeable thing, but surely there’s got to be something different about each to show us. Yes, this may be no more of a bauble than the Meditation from Thaïs that Dance Theatre of Harlem gave us in the summer, but I can name more than a handful of Balanchine’s dancers that are going around treating fine, but second-tier, works like Valse Fantasie like they were masterpieces, and getting them performed with enough conviction to make us believe it. Why isn’t someone fighting for this work? Where are Ashton’s acolytes?

Oedipus Rex contains precious little blocking and no dance whatsoever, but static, monolithic tableaus suit the music, which is an oratorio with a narrator, and suit the vastness of the Met as well. A single body gets lost, but several dozen men in evening dress in two lines across the bottom of the stage, barely moving except for their mouths, creates an image of spare, massed power. The set designs for the opera, a platform creating two levels with a large half-circular flat in glowing blood red and gray, are the simplest and most successful of the evening. The action is played out in a stylized form on the platform with singers also in modern evening dress, but wearing white papier maché masks. As the narrator below (Philip Bosco, but in the original 1981 production it was Dowell) tells us what is to happen, the singers above declaim and inexorably play out the drama, sung in Latin, of Oedipus’ hubris and tragic discovery of the fate he did not know and could not escape.

The works, completed in 1913, 1914 and 1927 shadow the turbulence before and after the First World War. Each is linked not just by design and production, but by theme, the peril of a situation forcing a need for individual sacrifice for the purging of situation that was not their making and the redemption of the group. The Chosen One(s) dancing to death, The Nightingale saving the Emperor from Death with her song and asking for nothing but his tears in return, the chorus of plague-striken Thebes begging Oedipus in one voice to deliver them from pestilence. The works were epochal, and in the turbulence of the present the desperation of these situations and the harshness of their solutions is as powerful as at their creation.

#2 Farrell Fan

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Posted 10 October 2003 - 07:26 AM

This is a model review, IMO -- a model of clarity, fairness, and lightly-worn scholarship. I loved reading it.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 10 October 2003 - 08:45 AM

Thanks very much for that, Leigh -- it's an intriguing IDEA for a program at least. Of course, I'm interested that you pointed out no stager was listed (loved the Russian diction coach; an Ashton diction coach would be nice). It would be nice if Ashton had his Villella, his Francia Russell, or his Farrell. I think he was pushed out of the Royal so early though (1970) that he lost contact with the dancers. 13 years (1983-1970) is a dancer generation.

Did anyone else see it? Informal comments as well as formal reviews like this one are welcome!

#4 kfw

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Posted 10 October 2003 - 10:15 AM

I don't like to write and say "thanks" very often when that's all I have to say, but I have send a great big "thank you" to both Bobbi and Leigh for writing about this program! Those of us in the U.S. will at least get to hear it next year on NPR.

#5 carbro

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Posted 10 October 2003 - 01:59 PM

Those of us in the U.S. will at least get to hear it next year on NPR.

In the U.S. and everywhere, KFW. :P NPR can be streamed wherever there are computers and net access!

#6 Paul Parish

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Posted 10 October 2003 - 02:35 PM

fantastic report, Leigh--

on top of all that, it clarifies the situation re the Kirov here -- he conducted 2/3 of the show on Tuesday night, made the receptin and hit his marks in photo ops with major donors, and was on a 5 AM plane back in hte morning....

I'm not actually complaining -- it's just staggering what an enterprise like that has to do to survive --

the Firebird overture pretty much fell apart the next night, and without Gergiev to tell the story, Nioradze went shrieking across the sky in the gaudiest, ugliest performance I've ever seen; she looked like Maria Shriver... terrible strain in her shoulders and neck, even before the tsarevitch caught her -- she looked broken a all her joints, very turned in, harsh glissades, and a grotesque distortion of her face like a Trockadero in full cry. The audience laughed at first, but since she was serious they gave it up, and in fact lots of people went along with the perfornmance....When she pointed her finger, you could clearly understand she was saying go get htat box from behind the tree -- she DOES have a fantastic ability to communicate..... She also has a miraculous balance. But her dancing was so ugly, full-bore, untempered, I was beside myself...

#7 Thalictum

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Posted 12 October 2003 - 08:27 PM

And how was Amosova?


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