The Soldier's Tale

Fri 11th – Sat 12th May 2012

reviews

Declan Clowry

at 22:39 on 11th May 2012

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Stravinsky's 'Soldier's Tale' has long been a favourite work of mine, but I had never before heard it performed live or seen it accompanied by dance. Therefore it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I approached 'Odile Productions'' new staging.

After a false start, during which the audience and musicians waited in confusion for several minutes until the start of the first act and confused noises could be heard backstage, I began to fear the worst. However, I am glad to say that my fear proved unfounded, as the rest of the performance proceeded spectacularly. Joseph the soldier (Tanner Effinger) was a very impressive lead, dancing and acting with both technical skill and nuanced emotional expression, whilst Roland Walters' devil was darkly sinister in an unexpectedly quiet, understated manner (no doubt helped by the impressive stage presence lent to him by his enormous height). Catherine Skingsley was equally a wonder to behold, bringing considerable balletic finesse to her solo dances, but also showing great chemistry with Effinger. I can honestly say that I felt touched by their intimacy during the wedding scene, despite its contrived nature and relative suddenness.

Somehow, the simplicity of this Russian folk tale allows direct emotional connexion. Rather than seeming flat or unbelievable, the straightforward presentation in guileless rhyming couplets, combined with the driving, carrying presence of the music, forces you to engage directly with the soldier's plight rather than intellectualising it. It is perhaps for this reason that I found the framing device of having two small girls, complete with jim-jams and teddy-bears, as story-book reading narrators a little jarring., particularly as the choice to have them speak for characters alternated with the actors' own speech seemed sometimes arbitrary. Although Zoe Bullock and Costanza Uslenghi were very convincing as a pair of excitable little narrators; their constant hug-spinning, frolicking, and apparent aeroplane impressions verged on the grating (having said this, a fellow theatregoer described them as "charming" so perhaps my own misanthropy is to blame). My only other complaint would be that most of the ensemble pieces, although perfectly adequate, paled drastically in comparison with the solo or paired dances. One feels that perhaps director Emily Romain could have been bolder with choreographing these sections. Of course, these are minor concerns, all of which are more than made up for by the excellent handling of the piece as a whole.

A significant part of the credit for this handling must surely go to the musical director Maria LeBrun and her small group of musicians. They handled the deceptively difficult score - which shows a typically Stravinskian attitude to time signatures - expertly. Violinist Natalya Zeman was a safe pair of hands on the plot-central fiddle, varying from the searingly beautiful to the jarringly violent and back again without some skill, and only the smallest of slips were detectable during the trickier brass passages during the Royal March.

At just under an hour, this show packs in an incredible amount of talent on all fronts, all held together tighter than a gnat's crotchet. I urge you to go and see it today if possible!

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Thomas Stell

at 00:08 on 12th May 2012

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This Russian folk-tale about a simple honest soldier's pact with the devil, worked up into a score for recitation and dance by Igor Stravinsky, is capably presented by this student company.

We meet our soldier Joseph as he returns to his home town on leave. Stopping to play the violin he loves so much, he is accosted by the devil, who persuades him to swap the instrument for a book. With a gruesome touch of modernity in this Faustian tale, it allows him to predict the future of the market. But as is so often the way with fairy-tale characters who cross the path of creatures from the otherworld, his three-day sojourn with his new acquaintance has lasted a lot longer than seems possible. When he reaches his village, three years have passed. His fiancée has married another and he realizes the devil's trick - his new wealth is a hollow replacement for a home and family.

In a far off land Joseph is told of a princess, daughter of the nation's king, lying stricken by a sickness that no one can cure. Beating the devil at cards he takes back the violin; its music cures the princess, and, given her hand by her father, all seems well. But on the day of his marriage the devil describes his final curse.

We are led through a rhymed translation of the original French libretto by Zoe Bullock and Constanza Uslenghi, whose third person narration is interspersed with brief sequences of mime and direct speech in the role of some of the characters. Their voices are extremely clear and their diction good though their tremendous energy perhaps comes at the expense of expression. In their reading of the story they are two young children, an identity they keep throughout given their pyjama costumes. There is something rather tiresome about their insistant cheerfulness and bedtime-story manner, though the performances are very professionally done. A lot of credit should also go to the dancers, from whom we have the fairly abstract ballet interludes between story-telling, and who represent courtiers and the devil's attendant spirits. Filip Falk Hartelius is of particular note, playing the king with a degree of precision beyond that of the rest of the corps and Katherine Skingsley's princess is brilliant - charming in her waking scene and delicate in her final duet. Tanner Efinger's Joseph though is less remarkable; and Roland Walters' devil, a tall, thin fellow in evening dress, felt a little out of place with his slightly awkward, restrained gestures in a cast largely composed of dancers.

The instrumentalists' septet is not at all bad - I would have liked a little more expression at times and Maria le Brun's conducting could have been braver, though their rather rigid style suited the vigourous "Soldier's March". The violinist Natalya Zeman however, whose playing often stands in for Joseph's, gives a fine performance with well-phrased solo lines. Unfortunately in other places there was too much trumpet for my liking, sometimes the poor violin being actually inaudible.

The Soldier's Tale is the sort of out-of-the-way modernist work producers Harriet Davison and Helen Olley deserve credit partly for just putting on. It is from a period whose less well known music for dance and opera seems to be quite undeservedly neglected. It is sad then that though well-done, slight failings of the musicians (possibly due to under-rehearsing?) and a few performers mean it isn't quite first-rate. Nonetheless, an hour's entertainment that I hope will be well attended and whose merits well appreciated.

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