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Quirky, Failed 'Firebird' with NSO

Firebird, directed by Janni Younge (photo by Luke Younge, Lucid Pictures)

The so-called "heat dome" that has settled over most of the country made the prospect of an outdoor concert on Saturday night not so pleasant. Fans and programs fluttered furiously at the Filene Center, but few breezes came to cool the air at Wolf Trap for the latest concert by the National Symphony Orchestra. Featuring the much-anticipated return of Handspring Puppet Company, last in Washington for a slightly weird Midsummer Night's Dream with the Bristol Old Vic and for Warhorse before that, this concert was a disappointment for many reasons, the main one being the poorly amplified sound.

This adaptation of Stravinsky's Firebird, on the second half, required a large space at the front of the stage. As a result, in both halves the NSO was crammed into the extreme rear of the stage. For most NSO concerts in this admittedly dreadful acoustic, inside the theater one hears mostly natural sound. In this arrangement the only sound that really came out to the house was through the speakers, and it was like listening to an ancient transistor radio in the garage. Neither conductor Cristian Măcelaru nor the musicians, even if they had monitors to hear the sound produced by the speakers, could calibrate balances in the same way they do with live sound. In the first movement of Prokofiev's first symphony ("Classical"), that lightly tripping second theme in the violins was so delicate as to be almost inaudible, while the bassoon theme that accompanied it, more closely miked, was far more prominent. The finale, with its panoply of moving parts, was reduced to mush by amplification best suited to loud, not particularly nuanced types of music. The suite from Ravel's Ma mère l'Oye, although beautifully played (I would guess), fared no better.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, “Firebird” at Wolf Trap proves long on statement, short on puppets (Washington Post, July 25)

Peter Dobrin, At the Mann Center, a Firebird that soars (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 21)
Abstract music can be adapted to a ballet for which it was not created, as choreographer Mark Morris has shown again and again. When the music was created specifically to tell a different story, the challenges are much greater. This was the problem faced by this new South African Firebird, directed by Janni Younge and with choreography by Jay Pather. It could have succeeded in the way that the South African Magic Flute by Isango Ensemble, seen in 2014 at the Shakespeare Theater, did. Unfortunately, rather than gently pull Stravinsky and Fokine's story into a new shape, the director substituted a completely different one, not really having anything to do with the contours of Stravinsky's music.

The previous times we have seen Handspring creations, the troupe has augmented a story already fully developed by others. Here, the burden of narrating fell entirely to them, and it was overburdened and ineffective. Mostly, the director was trying to tell too many stories simultaneously, with dancing, not always seeming related to the music, competing with the puppets, mostly in the last ten minutes or so, and busy animations (created by Michael Clark). The video was projected on an object hanging over the stage, which looked something like a dirigible but turned out to be the largest puppet of them all, and a rather unwieldy one at that. Ballet is in many ways the total art form (pace Richard Wagner), with a visual element merged with an auditory one. My eyes focused almost entirely on the dancers, ignoring the video projection, so much of the story, reportedly about the history of post-Apartheid South Africa, passed me by. The NSO played well, through the veil of amplification, giving a sense of mystery to the additions to the score by Daniel Eppel.

This article has been edited to make a necessary correction.

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