Long Beach Opera brings a gripping and disturbing duo of one act shows to the Center Theater in Long Beach, with two performances on May 4 and May 10. The double bill is a new paring of works, presenting An American Soldier’s Tale with A Fiddler’s Tale. The thread of dark comedy in the narration and angular music brought a common theme to the evening, but the show’s enduring themes and off-beat approach make it worth watching.
An American Soldier’s Tale was a new conception of an older work: Igor Stravinsky composed the work L’Histoire du Soldat in 1918, with a libretto by Ferdinand Ramuz, re-telling a Russian folktale of a soldier who pursues a princess and a treasure, but is conned by the Devil. The new libretto by Kurt Vonnegut was commissioned by the New York Philomusica and premiered in 1993. Faced with an earlier opportunity to appear as narrator in a production of Stravinsky’s piece, Vonnegut had turned it down, as he didn’t like the text. As a result, the writer was almost dared into writing a better English narration – and thus An American Soldier’s Tale was born.
The new version focuses on the true story of Eddie Slovik, a private in World War II, who was the only member of the US forces to be executed for desertion since the Civil War. While people were deserting by the thousands – some estimates range up to 40,000 – and many were charged with desertion and sentenced to death, only Eddie Slovik paid the ultimate price. He was originally passed over to join the army due to convictions for minor theft (4F), but he was drafted later as a (1A) because his status changed when he married and became an ‘upstanding citizen’ in the last years of the war.
Vonnegut’s dry, dark humor and sense of irony fit well in the telling of Eddie Slovik’s historic fate. The narration was split between 3 actors, who portrayed major characters – the General, the Military Policeman, and Private Eddie Slovik. In a nod to the previous libretto, Eddie Slovik, compassionately portrayed by Kevin Reich, opens the scene armed only with a violin, and is all alone. The rhyming scheme provided meter to the words, sometimes in concert or angular against the music that Stravinsky wrote. Salty language and sarcasm spew forth from the General, in a strong rendering of the character by Tony Abatemarco. He was also wonderful and colorful in his portrayal as the ‘Red Cross nurse’ character. Marc Bringelson brought humanity and a moral sensitivity to his Military Police character, as well as another funny take on the same ‘Red Cross nurse.’ The actors played well as an ensemble, drawing the audience into the disbelief that Private Slovik was going to be “made an example of” and executed, to which he replies, “at least I’ll know who did it and why.”
The set, designed by Danila Korogodsky, and lighting of stark reds and whites lent itself to the bare emotions of war. Clearly the set designer put much thought into the symbolism of the show, as the buckets on the stage represented the nickname for the 28th Division in which Private Slovik served, also known as the “Bloody Bucket” division. The military costumes helped realize the actors as the battle-scarred characters, but the application of white-faced makeup was a brilliant stroke to see the farce juxtaposed against the stark reality of death. Stage direction by David Schweizer took the actors in snappy, military movements, as well as marionette-like motions, showing the characters following military orders, no matter how ridiculous they might be.
But a description of the show would be woefully incomplete without kudos to the orchestra. Led by the strong conductor Krystof Van Grysperre, the seven piece ensemble played with precision and vigor throughout the Stravinsky and the following work by Wynton Marsalis. Special recognition goes to violinist Alyssa Park, who played exquisitely, and was featured prominently in the Marsalis work.
Wynton Marsalis’ A Fiddlers Tale began after the intermission, and the two shows were woven together by using the actors from the previous show in the staging. Narrator Roger Guenveur Smith had a herculean task of portraying characters ranging from the female violinist, the protagonist of the show, to the Devil. All had different types of accents and pitches, sometimes seeming a pseudo-sung version of the words, written by Stanley Crouch. Marsalis’ music was fashioned in a sense after Stravinsky, but felt at times much more like Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals in the use of the orchestral coloring. There are distinctive tones of New Orleans in the music, as well. The actor’s use of the script created a bit of disconnection from the audience that wasn’t present in the previous work. But all connected to the moral of the story – it’s easy to sell out to the devil for fame and fortune, but it will rarely bring you what you ultimately want – happiness.