Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale” Steals Souls at Carnegie Hall

Daniel Clark

Stravinsky is perhaps classical music’s most celebrated stylistic chameleon. Whether it be revolutionary modernism in The Rite of Spring, sweeping romanticism in The Firebird, or sparkling neo-classicism in The Rake’s Progress, every genre Stravinsky touched, he mastered. It is in his smaller works, however, where Stravinsky demonstrates a subtler, but equally virtuosic, ability to exploit the beauty in the interstices between styles. In no piece is this more on display than in The Soldier’s Tale, a part-play, part-ballet, part-instrumental suite celebrating its centennial this year.

The Soldier’s Tale is Stravinsky at his most disorienting. The instrumentation is a hybrid of jazz combo, wind quintet, and Russian folk caravan, and the seven-man band often functions as some combination of the three. The story also defies categorization. C.F. Ramuz, Stravinsky’s librettist, structures and presents the narrative as a fable, but any attempt to discern a clear moral is ultimately frustrated by a malicious Devil who can cheat the rules of nature in a way man cannot. Last month, The Yale School of Music, as part of its Yale in New York series, mounted a fully staged performance of The Soldier’s Tale in Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall. Liz Diamond, the chair of the directing program at the Yale School of Drama, directed the production, and the musical ensemble comprised a mix of Yale School of Music faculty members and graduate students.

In The Soldier’s Tale, a narrator (Jarlath Conroy) tells the story of a young soldier (Julian Elijah Martinez) marching home for a brief leave from duty. After the soldier takes a break to play his fiddle, the Devil (Matty Oaks), disguised as an old man, offers to trade a strange book full of financial accounts for the young man’s instrument. As the soldier cannot read, and the old man cannot play, the two agree to spend three days at the old man’s home coaching each other on how to use each other’s newly acquired goods. When the soldier returns to his village, his loved ones treat him like a ghost; three years have passed, rather than three days.

The Devil continues to entrap the soldier throughout the play, in turn taking advantage of the young man’s naïveté, his greed, and his loneliness. In the final minutes, it appears the soldier has defeated his tormentor, finding happiness in a foreign land with a princess (Rachel Chew) as his loving bride. The Devil, furious at the prospect of the soldier besting him, eschews his method of exploiting the moral shortcomings of his prey and instead curses the soldier to a life of exile. In the last scene, the couple dares to visit the soldier’s homeland only to be wrenched apart by the Devil who finally claims full dominion over the soldier’s soul.

Last month’s performance at Zankel was a triumph. The orchestra handled the wickedly difficult score with ease, with Ana Kavafian’s solo violin solos being particularly haunting. Emily Coates’s choreography, which mixed elements of jazz, ballet, ballroom, and hip-hop complemented the music’s eclectic tonal language. Ms. Chew as the non-speaking princess stood out among a uniformly strong cast of actors and dancers, which is especially impressive, considering she is the only non-professional of the bunch. An unplanned intermission triggered by a snapped violin string was the only blemish on an otherwise stellar production, but any potential awkwardness from the mild snafu was largely averted by some comedic improvising by Conroy and Martinez.

The Yale in New York concert series will return to Carnegie Hall this February for a pair of recitals in Weill Recital Hall.