Friday, May 19, 2017

Stunning production by Michael Curry breathes new life into "Persephone"

Photo credit: Oregon Symphony/Brud Giles
The Oregon Symphony and puppeteer-production designer Michael Curry blew away a standing-room-only audience with a breathtaking, magical performance of Stravinsky’s “Persephone.” This rarely performed melodrama came to life via sophisticated lighting, puppetry, and evocative sets not to mention the dance, spoken monologue, and music created by the orchestra, adult chorus, children’s chorus, and tenor soloist. Curry’s visual imagery and skillful direction of twelve black-clad puppeteers absolutely enhanced the story-telling and the music to make “Persephone” a very memorable event.

Curry has been acclaimed for his work with Disney’s “The Lion King” as well as for his collaborations with Cirque du Soleil , The Metropolitan Opera, London’s Royal National Theatre, the International Olympic Committee. The production of “Persephone” marked his first collaboration with a symphony orchestra, and it became the third installment in the Oregon Symphony’s unique “Sight and Sound” series. The audience knew right away that it was in for something special, because a specially-built stage behind the orchestra featured a very large moon-like disc centered between two large gnarly trees with intertwined roots.

André Gide, the Nobel Prize winning poet wrote the libretto for “Persephone,” which retells an ancient Greek myth that explains the seasons of the year. However, Gide changed the story to give Persephone a Christ-like character. In the original, Persephone is abducted by Pluto and brought to Hades, but in Gide’s retelling, Persephone has compassion for the people of the underworld and goes there to provide some sense of happiness. She can do this because she is the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of harvest and agriculture. Unfortunately, Demeter really misses her daughter. This causes the earth to be dominated by the cold, harsh winter so that no crops can grow and everyone above ground is miserable. So Persephone returns to the earth and accepts Triptolemus, the tiller of soil, as her husband, but because of her obligations to Pluto, she returns to hades for half of the year.

Although "Persephone" dominated the evening, the concert began with an impeccable performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 2 ("Little Russian"). The woody sound of the clarinets, the immaculate exchange of pizzicato lines between the strings, the big brass chorale, and the lovely melodic passages were augmented by the sensitive playing of Joseph Berger on the French horn and Carin Miller Packwood on the bassoon.

In Curry’s production, the character of Persephone was split three-ways: as a life-size marionette, a dancer (Anna Marra), and as an actress (Pauline Cheviller). This may have caused some confusion initially, but it became clear as the story progressed. Marra’s graceful aerial dance at the end of a large boom was spectacular, doing cartwheels in slow motion above the stage and over the orchestra – briefly dangled above the timpani and trumpets. At times, her movements were accompanied by the ghostly spirits of the underworld and she also dallied with Pluto, which was represented by a fibrous 14-foot tall puppet.

Cheviller deftly conveyed the text with emotion, reaching a high point when Persephone became distraught as her mother search fruitlessly for her. In the role of the priest Eumolpus, tenor Paul Groves narrated each scene with a stentorian recitative. The Portland State Chamber Choir (expertly prepared by Ethan Sperry) and the Pacific Youth Choir (expertly prepared by Mia Hall) conquered the challenging music with panache.

Cheviller, Groves, and all of the singers were amplified, which was a necessity due to the Schnitz’s poor acoustic. Stravinsky’s music sounded ancient and modern at the same time, and the orchestra, guided by Carlos Kalmar, handled all of it terrifically. The musicians were positioned on a stage that extended over the first few rows of the hall.

Among the many wonderful moments of Curry’s production was a stag that transported Persephone to the underworld and later brought in a pomegranate that she ate and made her long to return home. A group of women whose braided hair extended from the roots of the tree was also very striking as were the images projected on the moon-like disc.

Representatives from other orchestras were in attendance to watch the show. Seattle Symphony has Curry’s production of “Persephone” already scheduled for next April. The magical vision of Curry makes me wonder what he would do with Wagner’s “Ring Cycle.” Hmmm…..

No comments: