Don Quixote, puppets, soldiers invade Castleton finale

Stravinsky and De Falla mini-masterpieces as you’ve (probably) never seen them.

CASTLETON, Va. —The second annual Castleton Festival continued to surprise during its final weekend in rural Virginia, featuring rare, fully staged performances of Igor Stravinsky’s L’histoire du Soldat (A Soldier’s Tale) and Manuel De Falla’s El retablo de Maese Pedro (Master Pedro’s Puppet Show) at the festival’s intimate small theater. Both works are a bit off the beaten path, a welcome thing indeed in today’s classical music world, which is often guilty of avoiding the new and unusual. Both productions mark a significant leap forward in the breadth and depth of this two-year-old festival’s offerings.

Stravinsky's soldiers in formation.

Stravinsky’s soldiers in formation. (Production
photos courtesy Castleton Festival.

Stravinsky’s 1918 Soldier’s Tale is sometimes billed as an opera, but it’s not. Based on a Russian folktale, this combination of music, spoken dialogue and dance tells the story of a soldier trudging home on leave. He runs into a mysterious stranger — the devil, in disguise of course — who offers him a deal he pretty much can’t refuse. In return for the soldier’s battle-scarred old fiddle, the stranger offers him a magic book that even today’s Wall Street thieves would find tempting. It contains investing secrets that will guarantee unlimited wealth. Since greed is good, the soldier makes the deal and gets rich seemingly overnight.

Unfortunately, like every deal with the devil, this one seems to have a catch — none of his old friends or neighbors recognizes the soldier anymore, and he also seems to have lost control of time. Wandering aimlessly, he runs into the devil again, manages to get his fiddle back in a game of cards, wins the hand of a princess and loses her when the devil snares him again.

Violinist Jennifer Koh.

Violinist Jennifer Koh. (Courtesy Ms. Koh’s
official website.

The familiar music from Soldier’s Tale — acrid, modernistic and oddly similar to the music of Kurt Weill during this period — is still heard in concert with some frequency today. Scored originally for a chamber septet, the festival’s small ensemble was conducted crisply by Maestro Lorin Maazel, who also did a good job making sure the pit was well coordinated with the action and dialogue on stage. The notable and difficult violin solos in this production were flawlessly executed by special guest violinist Jennifer Koh, who graciously performed in the orchestra pit with the other players.

Fully staged performances of Soldier’s Tale are not common. This is probably due to the fact that it defies categorization. There’s no singing, so it’s not an opera. There are spoken parts, but, because they’re interrupted frequently by lengthy musical passages, it’s not really a play, either. And while there is some dancing, there’s not a lot, so it would be tough to call this a ballet.

To regenerate Soldier’s Tale into an appealing modern stage work, the festival borrowed the original, spoken French libretto by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz but used an updated, colloquial English translation. Because there’s no generally accepted performance standard, the festival wisely picked a talented set of actors who can also dance and mime. The spoken parts in this production flow smoothly in and out of Stravinsky’s music. And the actors, some of whom swap various roles, perform march and dance moves cleverly choreographed by Faye Driscoll to create a kind of motion that moves the action forward expressively while remaining surprisingly unobtrusive.

The fine cast of Soldier’s Tale included Sean Donovan (the soldier), Mike Mikos (the devil) and Phillip Taratula and Toni Melaas as part-time devils and townfolk. Melaas also portrayed the dance-centered role of the princess in the show’s second stanza, offering a graceful, subtle interpretation of this pivotal role.

The puppet show is on.

The puppet show is on. Unfortunately, Don
Quixote (Paul La Rosa) and Sancho Panza
(Donald Groves) are about to intervene

After a halftime break, the stage was transformed into a colorful puppet theater set vaguely in the medieval period of time. All the better to stage yet another difficult-to-categorize piece, this time De Falla’s funny and inventive Master Pedro’s Puppet Show, a fanciful, one-act amalgam combining orchestra, opera singing and, yes, an actual puppet show into a delightful, unusual entertainment lasting about 30 minutes.

The story line is taken directly from Cervantes’ famous novel, Don Quixote. During Friday evening’s performance, our hapless knight (Paul La Rosa) and his sidekick, Sancho Panza (Donald Groves), come upon a puppet show in which a not-too-bright hero finally makes a half-hearted attempt to free his kidnapped wife from her Moorish captors.

Master puppeteer Pedro (Tyler Nelson) and his boy apprentice (Richard Pittsinger) work hard to entertain the Don. But our hero is ultimately frustrated by the puppet hero’s lack of, well, heroism. So he plunges into the action, destroying the puppet theater, the puppet show and pretty much everything in sight before realizing his mistake and slinking offstage.

The puppet king is not amused.

The proceedings are both silly and amusing in a Monty Python sort of way. De Falla’s modernist score worked quite well during Friday’s performance, performed with admirable fluency by 11 instrumentalists under the baton of young conductor Han-Na Chang. The singing roles were minimal but nicely executed, particularly the role of Don Quixote, sung with verve and comic wit by Paul La Rosa. And the delightful puppets were created by Emily DeCola and Eric Wright of the Puppet Kitchen, whose crew ran that part of the show — until Don Quixote destroyed it.

Popular notions aside, classical music is not always loaded with high seriousness. Both this weekend’s new stage offerings — lighter, mixed media fare with family appeal — prove the point and argue persuasively for unearthing other equally clever pieces that remain hidden or forgotten. Indeed, advance sales of this show prompted a repeat performance Saturday in addition to its final Sunday performance. The festival is to be congratulated for its innovation in this regard. Staging pieces like these two at future festivals is bound to expand the appeal of this event.

Rating: *** (Three stars.)

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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