They came for the puppets. Wolf Trap’s Filene Center was nicely full on Saturday night for a version of Stravinsky’s “Firebird” conceived by the creators of “War Horse.” The lawn and seats were filled with families, including a number of small children who looked droopy but game by the 8:15 curtain.
They had to work to see those puppets, though. God forbid an orchestral concert should be too much fun. First, the National Symphony Orchestra and Cristian Macelaru played a couple of other orchestral pieces — Prokofiev’s “Classical” symphony, sounding a little dutiful, and Ravel’s “Mother Goose” suite, sounding nicely rich — offered without explanation, or even program notes. Then came intermission (some of the children didn’t make it farther than that). Then, the director and choreographer talked about their goals in the work. Only then did the “Firebird” begin, and proved to be a somewhat convoluted choreographic attempt to make a Major Statement through dance and music and symbol. But the puppets, when they did appear, were spectacular.
This “Firebird” was conceived by IMG, a talent agency, for the summer festival circuit. It was co-commissioned by six festivals; it opened earlier this week at the Mann Center with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and will go on after Wolf Trap to Ravinia, the Hollywood Bowl and elsewhere. It was two years in the making, and the creators approached it with the utmost seriousness. And therein lay the problem.
Janni Younge of the Handspring Puppet Company decided not simply to tell the story of “The Firebird.” Instead, she set out to create a parable about artistic creation that doubles as an allegory of the recent history of South Africa, home to the creators and performers of the show. In this retelling, the Seeker (the beautiful dancer Jacqueline Manyaapelo) works with the Alchemist (played by Ntombikayise Gasa as an archetypal strong, wise older woman) to give form and substance to her creative ideas, expressed by a bird figure that begins as two wings on the arms of the impressive dancer Shaun Oelf and gradually takes on clearer and larger form, through an articulated ostrich-like creature towering over the humans on stage to, in its final apotheosis, a magnificent winged dragon.
It’s a lot of freight to pile on a ballet written in 1910 as an adroit piece of forward-looking folk color. And I confess that, in my synopsis, I am partly relying on what I read in the program notes because it was difficult to make sense of what was happening onstage without them. The 15 dancers were wonderful and individual in a sort of generic contemporary choreography that interspersed graceful, athletic leaps and lifts with moments of vernacular folk movement. The puppets were a fabulous bestiary of twisting snakes and children’s bodies (symbolizing innocence and free creative play) and a horned quadruped, as well as the bird. The music was forcefully led, and the orchestra sounded fine (though the NSO’s strings, long accustomed to basking in a leading role, need to pay more attention now that the orchestra has so much improved its winds and brass). So does it need to tell a comprehensible story?
No, because there’s plenty of successful abstract art. But yes, because this “Firebird” was striving so clearly to tell a story and having such trouble doing it. Art doesn’t have to be this complicated. Also de trop were the videos by Michael Clark, which offered explicit visual links to contemporary South Africa; the hand-drawn animations looked like inexpert knockoffs of the work of William Kentridge, South Africa’s leading artist, who has worked extensively with the Handspring Puppet Company (and directed two acclaimed opera productions at the Metropolitan Opera). The videos gave the whole thing the stamp of a kind of cultural tourism, a small package of South African statement distilled to its essence, or its stereotype.
One point of this kind of evening is to draw new audiences to orchestra concerts, and the full house showed that it succeeded. But Wolf Trap and the NSO did not do well by that audience in their presentation; some introduction or context to the first half of the program would have been nice. I found myself wondering why one couldn’t just offer people who wanted to see “The Firebird” a performance of “The Firebird.” Yes, it would have made for a short evening. Yes, the point is to get to hear more orchestra music. But the message that came across, to any first-timers in the audience, is that orchestra concerts involve a lot of waiting, for a challenging payoff.