Steamboat Springs Editor's note: Following is a review of a performance of Igor Stravinsky's and C.F. Ramuz's "The Soldier's Tale." The instrumental and spoken-word performance was Sunday and featured members of the Steamboat Springs Orchestra and local thespians. The performance was conducted by Ernest Richardson.
Soldier's pay is death, and as of Sept. 28, 1918, when "The Soldier's Tale" premiered, a great many had been cashiered in the not-so-great Great War. The carnage in Western Europe was finally put on hold by the influenza pandemic, though the slaughter continued in Russia in the form of the Revolution, a good reason for Igor Stravinsky to be in Switzerland at that time.
It was in Switzerland where he was able to collaborate with C.R. Ramuz, a Swiss poet. Because of the flu, the concert halls were closed and musicians were more impecunious than usual, and so the plan was to stage a musical drama, commedia del arte style, traveling from village to village in a wagon.
The play is based on an old Russian folk tale in which a soldier returning home on leave encounters the devil, who talks him into trading his violin, which represents his soul, for a book that foretells the future and will enable him to become very wealthy. It is the "Book of Insider Trading." The soldier goes to the devil's home before continuing on to his village. When he arrives home, he finds he is treated as a ghost, and three years - not three days - have past. A second soldier convinces him he can regain his freedom by returning to the devil the wealth he has gained through the book by losing to him in a card game. The devil, being demonic, is not a free agent and absolutely has to win. This accomplished, the soldier learns of a very ill princess who will become his bride if he is able to cure her.
Should the play end here, we would have a plot suitable for a children's puppet show. But wait, there is more.
The princess talks him into returning to his village; in so doing he is in violation of a moral in that he is trying to share that which he has become with that which he was. He also is guilty of trying to double his happiness. One happy thing is every happy thing; two happy things are nothing, we are informed. These morals might be more convincing were they expressed in Cyrillic alphabet. The devil, amid a spectacular percussion solo, escorts our hero to hell, that is, eternal death with no hope of redemption.
Fine as it is, the Steamboat Mountain Theater stage did not allow room for the orchestra and stage movement, and so the acting parts were just read by Rusty de Lucia as the narrator and second soldier, Andy Pratt as the soldier, and Mike Brumbaugh as the devil. The original production also included a dancer, who would have been especially delightful during the princess' three numbers - a waltz, a tango and a ragtime piece.
The entire composition is technically demanding; it requires such virtuosity that it is not often played. The rhythm is asymmetrical; two-three, two-three instead of one or the other. Although there are some lovely passages, it is more grating and difficult than beautiful.
The seven instruments are balanced at antipodes. The high-pitched violin (Teresa Steffen Greenlee) is balanced against the deep double bass (Forest Greenough). Likewise, the clarinet (Gary Foss) against the bassoon (John Fairlie) and the trumpet (Sean Butterfield) against the trombone (John Neurohr). Percussion, played by Leland Miller, stood alone. The instrumentalists played flawlessly.