“In their original form, both these stories were firmly rooted in realism and a strong sense of place; the original Petrouchka was steeped in Russian folk tradition, with the original choreography and visual design literally re-creating a Russian village fair onstage, while most iconic images of Carmen – the bullfighter costumes, the lace mantillas, the fiery heroine in a red dress – are saturated with Spanish flavor. But tonight they are completely re-envisioned to explore the essential themes behind the stories. We’ve uprooted them from their concrete world and stripped them clean of the extraneous details to lay bare the beating hearts underneath. What remains when you strip away the conventional and the expected? Two iconic protagonists who come to life in a whole new way. Love. Fate. Desire. Questions about identity, about the nature of what is real. An ever-shifting world in which we can all see ourselves reflected.”
–OBT Artistic Director Christopher Stowell
Music by Igor Stravinsky
Choreographed by Nicolo Fonte
When unknown composer Igor Stravinsky was plucked from obscurity to create a new work for Ballets Russes impresario Serge Diaghilev, he had no idea that the 1910 premiere of The Firebird would rocket him to overnight stardom as the hottest composer of his day. Fresh off the dizzying success of their debut, the savvy Diaghilev immediately commissioned another ballet from Stravinsky, who went back home to Switzerland to get right to work.
While sketching out the beginnings of what would eventually become The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky kept returning to one particular musical motif – a bitonal chord consisting of C major and F# major triads played together – and one particular mental image: “In my mind I had a distinct picture of a puppet, suddenly endowed with life, exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades and arpeggios,” he wrote in his 1936 autobiography. “The orchestra in turn retaliates with menacing trumpet blasts. That outcome is a terrific noise which reaches its climax and ends in the sorrowful and querulous collapse of the poor puppet.”
“What seemed most powerful to me in the original scenario of Petrouchka was that the character of the puppet Petrouchka had more life than he was supposed to have,” says choreographer Nicolo Fonte, who was delighted at the chance to produce his own adaptation during the 100th anniversary of the ballet’s premiere. “So much life, in fact, that it brought him incredible joy and terrible suffering. This character with ‘too much life’ is the basis for my Petrouchka. Only now he is not only full of life, he is also full of creativity and courage – so much so that he is able to affect a profound change on those around him.”
At first, the tune Stravinsky later called “Petrouchka’s Cry” (named for the iconic character who starred in the Russian traveling puppet shows Stravinsky grew up watching) was merely a side project, a mental break from the major work at hand on The Rite of Spring. But when Diaghilev arrived to check in on Stravinsky’s progress and heard it, he was enthralled, and immediately saw the possibility for it to become a truly unique ballet. He reassembled the “dream team” from The Firebird, with choreographer Mikhail Fokine drawing on Russian pantomime and folk dance traditions to create a startling, audacious new ballet style, and principal dancer Vaslav Nijinsky bringing to life the lead character, one of the most iconic male roles in the canon. Audiences at the time had particular expectations for the male romantic lead in a story ballet, and Petrouchka defied them all; he was no dashing, heroic prince but an awkward antihero, a tormented soul trapped in a make-believe world. Says Fonte, “Placing this simple story in a fairytale-like setting has allowed me to explore through movement (as opposed to mime) the darker themes – as well as the lighter ones – contained in both the music and the original scenario in a way that feels to me both modern and complex.”
The Petrouchka score, with its Russian folk music roots, superseded even The Firebird as a groundbreaking ballet score, particularly the odd, bitonal chord that first captured Stravinsky’s imagination (which became known as the “Petrouchka chord”). The music remains one of his most iconic works, and he called it “the first piece that really represents me, as I think of myself . . . the first piece in which I’ve had the full confidence of my inner ear.” Audiences and musicians still agree; says conductor and public radio commentator Rob Kapilow, “I was never before in the midst of so much extraordinary sound.”
Music by Georges Bizet
Choreographed by Christopher Stowell
Principal dancer Alison Roper and Choreographer Christopher Stowell in rehearsal for Oregon Ballet Theatre’s world premiere of Christopher Stowell’s Carmen. October 8-15, 2011 at the Keller Auditorium in Portland, Oregon. Photo by Renata Kosina/Skies America.
Modern audiences know Carmen primarily as an opera that has been adapted for ballet, stage and screen in a staggering number of variations since its 1875 premiere. Devotees of 19th-century French literature might also know that Georges Bizet’s opera was based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée. But it might surprise even the most ardent opera fans to learn that in fact the story was a ballet first. Choreographer Marius Petipa’s work Carmen et son Toréro actually predates the novel by two years; both were inspired by a narrative poem called The Gypsies by Alexander Pushkin, written in the 1820s. Mérimée fell in love with the poem after translating it for publication, and adapted it into a novella, which was divided into four parts; Bizet adapted Part III of the novel (taking some fairly significant artistic liberties) for his libretto. It only took 30 years for Carmen the gypsy temptress to transform from the sultry star of a naughty book passed around privately in smoke-filled gentlemen’s clubs, to one of the most beloved leading ladies in the entire opera canon and an iconic femme fatale.
“While the setting is very colorful, that’s not what makes these characters so compelling,” says choreographer Christopher Stowell, OBT’s artistic director. “Most people have some conception of the characters in the story, because they’re such strong archetypes; but at the same time they’re in a situation that could happen to any person. If you put them in a situation most of us will never go through, we can’t relate to them. But jealousy, destiny, self-destructive behavior, the ways love makes us go out of control . . . those things happen to us all the time.”
Gypsies, soldiers and bullfighters. Passion, infidelity, violence. Bizet’s opera about the fiery Carmen and her jealous lover Don José scandalized Paris when it opened in 1875 at the Opéra-Comique, which at the time was a genteel establishment for the cultural elite. A family-friendly social destination, its traditional fare was generally lighter in tone. But Bizet’s score was the harbinger of the new era to come, signaling the rise of the verismo opera movement, which was about to soar to popularity in Italy. In verismo (or “realistic”) operas, instead of following the plights of kings and heroes, the characters are ordinary working-class people whose lives are shaped by sex and violence. And the same gentlemen who devoured Mérimée’s torrid novella on the sly were none too pleased to see it onstage in front of their wives and daughters. By the end of the run, the opera’s director was giving tickets away for free to fill seats. It wasn’t until after Bizet’s death when the opera opened in Vienna that it became a success; freed of the Parisian audiences’ devotion to social protocols, Viennese opera-goers were mesmerized and enchanted by the lively, raw music and the compelling characters. From then on, Carmen was a hit.
The heightened emotional drama of the story and its larger-than-life characters lend themselves particularly well to dance. Unfortunately, no record exists of what score Petipa might have used in his ballet version of the story; most subsequent ballet versions of Carmen have drawn from Bizet’s score, such as Roland Petit’s 1949 adaptation that premiered in London, or Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s Carmen Suite (adapted from Bizet), which he created for his wife, the great Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. “I thought about these characters somewhat differently than either Mérimée or Bizet did,” says Stowell. “It’s important to me that Carmen’s not just a promiscuous woman. She’s self-destructive, and that self-destructiveness comes out in sexual ways. She has a sense of doom in her from the beginning, and she feels, ‘Why fight it?’ In Mérimée’s version, Don José is a famous outlaw bandit. In Bizet’s opera, he’s a devoted military man. In my version, he’s in the military out of duty, but he’s not really comfortable there, nor is he comfortable in the big city. Both of those things make him particularly vulnerable to Carmen’s attractions. He’s out of his depth in a completely new world. He’s attracted to new ideas at the expense of his past, and he’s questioning the direction his life was supposed to take.”