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Stravinsky Two Ways

October 29, 2008

There's something so refreshing about turning up to catch an Oakland Opera production. Instead of putting on a cocktail dress and walking into a grand, old wedding cake of a building in the heart of San Francisco as is the case with any visit to the Bay Area's flagship opera presenter, San Francisco Opera, one stands in line with a load of mostly casually dressed people down a barren, windswept back alley before being ushered into the large, empty warehouse of a room that serves as Oakland Opera's current performance venue.

Sadly, the pieces I have experienced by the company over the last year, though interesting (e.g. the company's recent production of the unfinished Duke Ellington opera, Queenie Pie) in general haven't lived up to the thrill I'd like to feel for experiencing opera beyond the stuffy conventions of the mainstream civic opera house.

The company's current double-bill of one-acts by Igor Stravinsky -- Histoire du Soldat (which isn't really an opera at all in the sense that there is no singing) and Renard demonstrate the highs and lows of producing opera on a shoestring. The company's heavy-handed version of Histoire equated the no-frills opera experience with amateurism. But the capering, circus- and burlesque-infused Renard brilliantly showed off the potential of performing operatic works in an unconventional way.

The main problem with Oakland Opera's Histoire is the company's decision to "update" Stravinsky's careening Faustian tale about a soldier who sells his soul to the devil. Reset during the current Iraq War, the production features one of the most banal and daft librettos I've ever heard. Rebecca Lenkewicz's doggerel-infused text reminds one of a second-rate Dr. Seuss book with couplets like "Thank you for your care / I'll tell her to let down her long, long hair."

Thankfully, the second half of Oakland Opera's program, Renard, makes up for the deadening, maddening experience of the first half. This time, the company wisely sticks to Stravinsky and Robert Craft's original libretto which tells the story of a group of fighting barnyard animals. The sung performances are robust and characterful. The circus and burlesque performers imbue the work with a lively, debauched energy. I especially loved watching a bunch of burlesque dancers clad in yellow stockings and white feathers, bustles and corsets impersonate a bunch of battery hens. I don't think I've ever seen a strip scene set in a farmyard before. Funny and interesting, if not exactly kinky.


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