This California Repertory Company production of Igor Stravinsky's 1918 collaboration with Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz, under the direction of Andre Steger, is a solid rendition of the allegory, with a particularly inspired performance by the small orchestra under the baton of conductor Richard Rintol. Stravinsky was a refugee from World War I and the Russian Revolution when he developed a friendship with Ramuz, and together they hatched this chamber piece, inspired by a Russian folktale. The result was a metaphorical musing on war and the frailties of mankind, with a Faustian twist.
The Soldier (Mark Staley) trades his fiddle with the Devil (Pete Uribe) and begins a rambling journey (narrated by Stephen Mendel), which ends with his uniting with a beautiful princess (Sarah Swenson) and ultimately defeating the Devil at his own game. The piece, which is performed with a mixed-media m lange of music, dance, narration, and dialogue, reflects the surreal tone of the worlds of art and politics during World War I. With enormous casualties provoking revolutionary movements in Russia and elsewhere, and the flu epidemic sending fear of divine retribution through civilian populations, L'Histoire du Soldat reverberated with European audiences and was immediately successful.
The music itself is slight, with simpler echoes of Stravinsky's symphonic and balletic works. The story is also simple, with a decidedly dark and metaphysical tone, told in rhyme and performed here with shades of commedia dell'art , particularly in the fine performance of Uribe. Because of the impressionistic nature of the work, there is a tendency for directors to pour too much interpretative fluff into the production, a temptation director Steger thankfully resists. He finds humor where he can, and he enlivens the heavy-handedness of the piece with some lighter scenic and choreographic touches. Choreography by Holly Harbinger, particularly in a duet by Swenson and Staley, is excellent. Also noteworthy is the simple but inspired scene design by Viktoria Teplinskaya.