For both of the past two weekends, mom and I have gone to Wolf Trap for some classical music. The first weekend, we went to the Barnes to watch the obscure 18th century comic opera L’Opera Seria, which was about a company trying to put on a serious opera that parodied much of the conventions of the genre. Then this last Saturday night, we went to the Filene Center to see the National Symphony Orchestra play a concert, which followed a symphony from Sergei Prokofiev and a suite by Maurice Ravel with the main event: Stravinsky’s The Firebird, accompanied by a show by the South African Handspring Puppet Company telling through puppetry and dance the history of their country over the last twenty years.
Part of the reason L’Operia Seria is so rarely staged today is because of the level of vocal talent it demands; apparently the Wolf Trap Opera’s young artist’s program has wanted to put it on for years, but it was only this summer that the young artists they’ve recruited included three women able to sing the demanding roles of the story’s three divas, and certainly all three they found were impressive singers. But it may not be the strongest work, either; despite musical riffs that will crack up anyone who knows about the conventions they parody, much of the music and even much of the script is weaker, especially in the first act.
A creative production, however, helped carry the second two acts, setting the story in a modern-day European opera house and embellishing the parody both during the rehearsal of the opera-within-an-opera and then the actual performance of it. The latter, in the third act, also included cast members going into the audience and raising a commotion in the way 18th century audiences actually did, although using modern ways to do it such as cellphones and sports-fans style cheers. The funniest moment of the evening was probably when, after the spotlights had already gone haywire, the supertitles malfunctioned, meaning the opera-within-an-opera ended with everyone being booed off the stage while above them the Google search page displayed.
The first half of Saturday night’s concert had no such weakenesses. Prokofiev’s 1st Symphony is a lovely and engaging piece, Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite has some truly memorable movements, and the orchestra is one of the best. Then came The Firebird. We had attended a lecture beforehand talking about the piece, and how in South Africa the initial heady years of Mandela and the end of apartheid have now given way to more depressing ones of government corruption and the rule of money. The story substituted Stravinsky’s Russian prince for a female seeker who celebrates her country’s new democracy and the ideas for the future, watches them go wrong and is finally forced to tear her ideas down, then puts herself back together and emerges stronger and wiser. They gave a shortened version of this on the stage before the performance as well, which was good, since it made the dance easy to understand.
Unfortunately, between a stressful day and a hot night, I dozed off for a large part of it. I wasn’t the only one; mom did to, and as we were leaving afterwards I overheard at least one personally confessing she also had done so. But I was awake for the end, when the impressive dragon puppet rose from the stage carrying the child puppet that had been broken apart and then mended as Stravinsky’s iconic closing theme filled the Filene Center. The result was simply glorious. The music through the show was given a whole new meaning, making already brilliant music even better.
I probably won’t be back to Wolf Trap this summer, especially not if the current infernal heat keeps up. But it was a good pair of trips.