Opera Review: An American Soldier's Tale & A Fiddler's Tale

An American Soldier's Tale - H 2014
Keith Ian Polakoff

An American Soldier's Tale - H 2014

Two radical variations on Stravinsky’s renowned 1918 proto-jazz classical performance piece each offer a prismatic reinvention of the original as contemporary theater.

Two works by Igor Stravinsky and Wynton Marsalis are staged in Long Beach with librettos by Kurt Vonnegut and Stanley Crouch.

With its innovative rhythms and rapidly changing time signatures, Igor Stravinsky’s pocket performance piece was scored for an economical septet (including the au courant cornet among a wind front line), with narrator and three characters (no singers). The composition remains a landmark in classical history, one of the earliest to incorporate an awareness of jazz, and it remains among his most performed. But the text, written as was the score in the safe cocoon of neutral Switzerland while the First World War raged and based on a traditional Russian folk tale, has always been something of a twee, precious drag, startlingly less relevant than the pioneering music. On records, neither the likes of Jean Cocteau, Peter Ustinov, Jean-Pierre Aumont, nor Sting have been able to endow it with any immediacy comparable to the music.

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who indisputably knew the brute experience of war, was challenged to write an alternate “desecration” of the libretto, and his 1973 vision, while neither subtle nor gracious, bluntly and bitingly offers a sarcastic complement to Stravinsky’s acerbic intonations. Vonnegut appropriates the story of Private Eddie Slovik (Kevin Reich), the only American soldier to be executed for desertion since the Civil War, a far more pointed object for moral outrage than the soft generalizations of the original text.

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As best as I can divine, this is the first Los Angeles presentation of the Vonnegut version. Similarly, the 1998 Wynton Marsalis riff on Stravinsky’s orchestration, A Fiddler’s Tale, is also premiering locally (despite a presentation last year at the Broad as a children’s concert expurgating all of the profane, frightening libretto of Stanley Crouch). Neither of them is of course in any conventional sense an opera, since all the vocals are spoken, not sung, yet The Long Beach Opera has yet again proven its street cred as an innovative company by presenting these brotherly works as a revealingly matched pair for the first time anywhere.

Marsalis uses the same instrumentation as Stravinsky and nearly the same structure of movements. It is solidly, even conservatively, within the classical mode, until near the end it breaks into a spasm of “the Devil’s Music” which, without breaking classical rigor, indeed has the flexible swing of jazz. While interesting and capable enough, it adds up to not considerably more than an accomplished exercise.

Where it competes favorably to the original, again, is in its new libretto. Stanley Crouch (like Marsalis himself, though in a different way) has always been a controversial sensibility in the jazz world, and his valuable contributions are often counterbalanced by a stubborn temperament and overreaching vanity. Here his rhetoric is often scholastically folk-lyric, reacting to hip-hop with jazzy flights of riffing locution while borrowing just enough of MC diction and attack to make for an uneasy and often obscure hybrid. Yet, for all its clumsy pretensions, it is eminently performable, and in the hands of one of the titans of solo performance, Roger Guenveur Smith (Huey Newton, Rodney King, Juan and John), it makes an extended prose aria as operatic as any bel canto trilling. While Smith’s extraordinary performance may not have been quite yet effortless opening night (though there is some delicious irony in the Devil resorting to a cheat sheet), he was amazing and will only get better. It leaves the conventional histrionics of the current Taper Paul Robeson show in the shade.

The real challenge of the evening was how to animate the stage considering the music, however central, remains an accompaniment to the dramatic action. Blessedly, director David Schweizer was lured back from his New York base to conjure up compelling images out of what had been essentially narration. Schweizer was one of the glories of Los Angeles theater throughout the 1980s and 1990s with innumerable groundbreaking productions at the Los Angeles Theater Center, The Actors Gang and The Evidence Room, as well as more establishment venues. Here he deploys a suggestively Weimar-like environment for the Vonnegut (excellent design by Danila Korogodsky) and coaxes his excellent actors to frontiers of fearless invention, investing caricatures with such distinctive vocabularies of body movement (not dance) that their incisiveness often perfectly mirrors Stravinsky’s own paroxysms of accented rhythm.

Venue: Long Beach Opera at Center Theater, Long Beach Convention Center (through May 10)

Cast: Kevin Reich, Tony Abatemarco, Mark Bringelson & Roger Guenveur Smith

Composers: Igor Stravinsky & Wynton Marsalis

Libretto: Kurt Vonnegut, replacing original by C.F. Ramuz & Stanley Crouch

Stage Director: David Schweizer

Conductor: Kristof Van Grysperre

Set Designer: Danila Korogodsky

Costumes & Props: The Company

Light Programmer: Sara Nishida

Sound Mixer: Bob Christian