L’Histoire du Soldat

Most music lovers have probably heard the music from Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat in either orchestral or chamber arrangement but it’s rare for the work to be given in its full staged form but that’s how it was presented (more or less) last night at Koerner Hall by the Toronto Summer Music Festival in association with LooseTEA Music Theatre.  That form includes a narrator, an actor (originally three actors, nowadays usually just a single actor/narrator) and dancer.  Plus, of course, the band; violin and bass, clarinet and bassoon, cornet and trombone, piano.

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The story is a simple enough one of the peasant soldier who does a deal with the Devil, finds he’s been double-crossed, works out a way to trick the Devil but the Devil, of course, has the last word.  The text is long and wordy and often only thinly supported by music.  The dancer (playing the Princess that the Soldier seeks to win) only appears near the end.  The result is to create, especially in the first half, a play with a little bit of music.  This would be OK if the text was intrinsically dramatically or poetically interesting but in the English translation used last night I didn’t think it was.  The effect was to create a piece that felt drawn out further than either the dramatic or the musical material justified.

It’s a shame because the realisation and performances were very good.  Alaina Viau’s updated production switched up the gender of the Soldier to give us Josephine, played with energy and humour by Suzanne Roberts Smith, with Derek Boyes narrating and playing the Devil and other small parts.  Jenn Nichols choreographed and danced/acted the part of the Princess (the first time I’ve seen her in a speaking role).  The more or less classical (pointe shoes anyway) choreography fit the story well and was beautifully executed by Jenn.  Further visual interest was added by projections by Cameron Davis.

The music itself is from the period where Stravinsky was moving away from the big, dense textures of the early ballets to the sparer, spikier neo-classical style here very much jazz influenced.  Check out the make up of the band.  There’s dissonance and pastiche; march, tango, waltz, and maybe just a little too much repetition.  The violin part (Jonathon Crow) demands considerable virtuosity and got it and there was much fine playing from the rest of the band drawn from the TSO Chamber Soloists.  They even worked themselves into the stage action on occasion.

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So, bottom line, I think it was a good idea for TSMF to programme this piece in a war themed season and I’m glad I got a chance to see it so well executed.  I remain unconvinced about its merits as music theatre though.

L’Histoire was preceded by a straightforward presentation of Copland’s Appalachian Spring in its original 13 piece chamber orchestra version.  The orchestra here was drawn from a mix of the TSO Chamber Soloists and the young musicians of the TSMF Academy.  It was a very beautiful account of a piece that is, I suppose, one of the earliest truly American works and a very good one with its deceptive mix of simple tunes like the Shaker hymn Simple Gifts and the rather sophisticated way in which those tunes are worked and reworked.  As tends to be the case, I found the work much more interesting in this stripped down form than in the more often heard version for full orchestra.

Photo credits – James Ireland.

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