If the recent episode involving Frank Almond’s Lipinski Strativarius had turned out differently, it might have been a little unbearable to watch Temptation’s Snare, which was performed this weekend by Present Music and Danceworks. After all, it’s the story of a dedicated musician who loses her violin due to a nefarious scheme.
But Almond and his Lipinski are together again, and this free adaptation of Igor Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale avoided the dark subtext that might have clouded its debut. Instead, it was one of the most charming and witty pieces of music-theater I’ve seen in quite a while.
Chalk it up to a serendipitous series of collaborations. In 2012, The Deviant Septet ensemble commissioned the Brooklyn-based composers “collective” Sleeping Giant to write a companion suite to Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, one of the most distinctive pieces of chamber music in the repertoire. Present Music and Danceworks combined the "companion" with the original. Like Stravinsky's original, it is a full-fledged piece of music-theater, narrated by the devil himself.
But it is very unlike Stravinsky's 1917 original (which featured narration by the Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz), thanks, for one, to Jason Powell, who rewrote and modernized the story, and plays beelzebub onstage.
In Powell's version, it's An Artist's Story, spinning the tale of a struggling but fulfilled musician (Cristal Wagner) who is tricked into giving up her violin (and her art) in exchange for a sort of uber-self-help book which promises her fame and fortune. Along the way, she loses a lover, gains riches, and even does some time on reality TV, a hilarious parody of "The Bachelor" that ends in a spectacular dance-duet (Wagner and the dazzling newcomer Morgan Williams). But it all pales next to the simple—and deeper--satisfactions of her music.
To tell the story, Danceworks Artistic Director Dani Kuepper creates animated tableaux of city life—bustling sidewalks and crowded subways. She choreographs a trio of punked-out minions who do the devil’s handiwork, and she stages a lovely farewell duet between Wagner and her beau (Andrew Zanoni), as well as a sexy-hot tryst between the “new” woman and Williams. The vocabulary ranges from wacky slapstick to aching romanticism.
For the music, Sleeping Giant took a mixmaster to Stravinsky’s motifs and textures (the six members of Sleeping Giant aren’t credited individually as composers), and allowed the players to have some fun with them (the conductor was Julian Pellicano). And they did, particularly Eric Seignitz, who dug deep into Stravinsky’s hard driving fiddle parts. And had some dazzling moments in the new music as well.
But it was really Powell’s show. His devil is always in control, always one step ahead of the characters in the story as well as the audience. His narration (composed entirely of rhyming couplets) keeps the audience guessing from line to line, and his persona—a blend of average Joe likeability and sinister intent—keeps the audience with him through the whole long narrative.