Long Beach Opera does non-traditional opera. So what could be more non-traditional than staging a work devoid of singing? How about staging two on a single bill?
That’s exactly what LBO is up to with their double-bill based on Igor Stravinsky’s neoclassical theatre piece L’Historie du soldat. There’s music, dancing, and recitation, but not a word is sung. It’s an interesting choice, but one for which LBO obtains only mixed results.
The LBO double-bill is a study in adaptation. The first part, An American Soldier’s Tale, is Stravinsky’s original music joined to a Kurt Vonnegut libretto based on the real-life story of Pvt. Eddie Slovik, the only American soldier since the Civil War executed for desertion. The second part, A Fiddler’s Tale, somewhat returns to Stravinsky’s original theme—L’Historie du soldat itself is an adaptation of the Russian folk tale “The Runaway Soldier and the Devil”—although Wynton Marsalis has created entirely new music to propel librettist Stanley Crouch’s story of a fiddler who strikes a deal with the devil that gives her fame and riches in exchange for pimping her artistic soul to service the lowest common denominator.
Despite the differences—Stravinsky does his modernist take on classical chamber music, while Marsalis manages a mélange of foxtrots, marches, jazz, and classical—both halves suffer from a poor dance component. LBO has at times brought a stellar physicality to its shows (Nixon in China, for example, featured a full-blown ballet, among other striking visual elements), but the creation of the double-bill didn’t include a choreographer, and it shows. More often than not the dancing we see is little more than flopping around.
This flaw that is doubly damaging, considering that both halves contain long music-only passages that invite a visual component. This is particularly true during the second half of A Fiddler’s Tale, where dancing is explicitly called for by the text, and the piece is probably 25% longer than it should be, with a denouement that desperately wants, but ultimately fails, to maintain the story’s momentum.
That’s a shame, because the story of A Fiddler’s Tale is fun as far as it goes. Told by a narrator (Roger Guenveur Smith) who gives voice to himself, the devil—who goes by the name Bubba Z. Beals and takes his raspy conversational style from the Bayou—and the fiddler, Crouch’s libretto is a charming take on how the pop-culture machine seems to succeed by draining art of its heart. “Corruption is a job,” Beals brags, defending his work—he’s literally an agent from hell—as providing a public service.
Smith’s performance is a mixed bag. For whatever reason, he was not off-book during the opening performance, which resulted in a subtle unevenness in his delivery. At times he was great, so funny and on it; at others, the thread is lost. This perhaps relates to the inconsistency of his accent. Usually the distinction between the narrator’s and devil’s manner of speaking is evident; but every now and then Smith dropped into a mode somewhere in-between the two, the persona he embodied comprehensible only from context.
The story of An American Soldier’s Tale is not quite as strong. Vonnegut is too on the nose with his castigation of the military for its application of a “fight or die” code of conduct in regards to a man whose nature simply could not accommodate the warrior’s code. Besides, there’s no much to tell. Guy runs away from his unit, gets caught, refuses to go back and fight, gets executed. As much as LBO injected with the piece with the expressionism it demands, they needed to go further to make it sing.
But the musical performance of the double-bill is beyond reproach. Under the management of Timothy Lee, this eight-piece configuration of the Long Beach Orchestra handles everything Stravinsky and Marsalis throw at them with seeming ease and full-flavored tastefulness.
An American Soldier’s Tale and A Fiddler’s Tale are not the kind of work that opera traditionalists favor. But Long Beach Opera has defined itself by working against the traditionalist grain. And while this non-traditional double-bill doesn’t fire on all cylinders, it does drive the audience into territory that will be new for most everyone who attends. That in itself may be a worthy journey.
AN AMERICAN SOLDIER’S TALE + A FIDDLER’S TALE LONG BEACH OPERA • CENTER THEATRE (300 E OCEAN BLVD) • LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.432.5934 LONGBEACHOPERA.ORG • SATURDAY 2PM • $29–$150 • ONE (MORE) PERFORMANCE ONLY: MAY 10
(Photo credit: Keith Ian Polakoff)