Review: Morlot and Seattle Symphony bring underrated Stravinsky to dazzling life

27th April, 2018

“But whether Perséphone is the patchwork and the bonbon that its critics claim is not for me to say,” remarked Stravinsky in his Dialogues with Robert Craft. Since its tepid première at the Paris Opera in 1934, the work has remained the most neglected of Stravinsky’s major scores, unable to find a comfortable home on the opera, ballet or concert stage. Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony and Chorale, however, presented a version that revealed what a ravishing piece has been hiding in plain sight all this time.

Their concert performance featured the direction and visuals – premiered last year by the co-commissioning Oregon Symphony – of Michael Curry, a prolific visual and concept designer best known for his collaborations on The Lion King and various Olympic ceremonies. Curry and his team of puppet artists worked their magic on a platform elevated behind the musicians and framed by a pair of giant naked trees and roots that formed an impromptu proscenium of their own, a vast moon projected as the background.

Stravinsky’s score labels Perséphone a “melodrama”; in other words, it includes lengthy stretches of narrated text accompanied by the orchestra. He also described his setting of André Gide’s libretto as “a masque or dance-pantomime co-ordinated with a sung and spoken text”. All of this ambivalence about the relative roles of music and narrative, sung and spoken voice, orchestra and danced/mimed action found a simple but elegant, theatrically spellbinding solution in the one-of-a-kind hybrid that Curry envisioned.

Stravinsky conceived the title role for two performers: a narrator and dancer, embodied here by Pauline Cheviller and Anna Marra. Curry added a stunningly lifelike puppet of Perséphone to enact events (how I’d love to see this team stage the Pygmalion myth). A gigantic, wondrously grotesque puppet also represented Pluto, god of the Underworld, doubly figured as a dancer (Henry Cotton), while the Shades of the departed flitted across the space as painted kites and the intervening Mercury took the form of an antlered puppet deer. Despite the work’s length, Stravinsky includes only one solo vocal part – for the narrator role of Eumolpus, priest of Demeter – where tenor Kenneth Tarver sowed a hint of plaintive sorrow into his exquisite phrasing.

The score does contain less-than-first-rate Stravinsky alongside some breathtaking moments, and Gide’s text betrays weaknesses of its own. Yet harnessed to this poetically innovative visualization, Perséphone was transformed into a stirringly beautiful and effective work of music theater. Demeter’s loss of her daughter is eventually remedied and the spring returns, but in a compromise that is an ancient Greek counterpart to the loss of Eden. Here is neoclassical Stravinsky’s reflection on spring and its metaphors, the brute vital force of Rite replaced by shockingly static harmonies and tamed rhythms (though he did apparently incorporate a fragment from the old days – 1917 – for one of Eumolpus’ arias).

Morlot’s sensitivity to this sound world, which he meticulously elicited from the orchestra, aligned perfectly with the staging concept, as did the elegant singing from the Northwest Boychoir and SSO Chorale prepared by Joseph Crnko (particularly in the Berceuse, when Perséphone first arrives in the Underworld).

Perséphone filled the second half of an all-Stravinsky evening whose first concluded with a thrilling account of the long-in-the-making Les Noces, here a collaboration with the Moscow-based Dmitry Pokrovsky Ensemble. The latter is a frequently touring collective devoted to documenting and performing the rich variety of Russian folk traditions. There was no staging per se, but dressed in traditional garb, the men and women divided at the front of stage right and left, respectively, and singing without scores, they nevertheless generated a colourful sense of drama, emphasising the raw, visceral impact of Stravinsky’s word setting. It was fascinating to compare his preoccupation with the Russian rhythms, versus his blithe disregard of natural French metre in setting Gide’s text, where the emphasis is on the sounds of words in themselves. (The result was a nasty falling-out between the collaborators – read his comments on Gide in Dialogues to find Stravinsky at his deliciously cattiest.)

Similarly fascinating was the contrast in sound worlds between the string-enhanced Perséphone and the pared-down scoring on the first half. Among the impressive lineup of pianists for Les Noces (who also included Cristina Valdés, Jessica Choe, and Li-Tan Hsu) was Marc-André Hamelin, fresh from performing as the soloist in the 1924 Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments. Hamelin treated the audience to a virtuoso display in some ways more fiendish than that of the powerhouse Romantic staples usually consumed, executing its mercilessly nonstop toccata figuration with Stravinskian coolness and sober clarity.

Morlot prefaced this with Stravinsky’s arrangement (for winds, brass, and percussion) of Song of the Volga Boatman (made as a replacement Russian national anthem in 1917 for the touring Ballets Russes), setting the stage for the harsh archaisms to come in Les Noces. It was another touch of the the imaginative programming Morlot has made into a signature.


27 April 2018
Thomas May / bachtrack