United States Firebird: Reimagined: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Handspring Puppet Company, Nolan Williams, Jr. (festival artistic director), Andrew Lawson and Zeek (baritones), Janni Younge (director), Jay Pather (choreographer), Philadelphia Orchestra, Cristian Măcelaru (conductor), Mann Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia, 20.6.2016 (BJ)
Leading off a series of performances that also takes in Wolf Trap, Ravinia, Sun Valley Pavilion, the Hollywood Bowl, and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, the Mann Center’s United States premiere of Firebird: Reimagined was a boldly imaginative presentation that clearly held the fascinated attention of a large and refreshingly diverse audience. Reinterpreting the symbolism and dramaturgy of Fokine’s original choreography, Janni Younge and Jay Pather crafted a blend of Russian folklore with South African elements that transformed the story into a somewhat New-Age-ish but still compelling evocation of what might be called the troubled yet inspiring birth of a nation.
If the expectation was a triumphant tribute to Stravinsky, the reality turned out to be something rather different. Under the baton of conductor-in-residence Cristian Măcelaru, the Philadelphia Orchestra brought all its familiar polish, precision, and passion to the execution of this by now more than a century-old piece of contemporary (!) music, and the result was unfailingly beguiling to the ear. Where the mind is concerned, on the other hand, my own feeling is that when Stravinsky made a deservedly popular concert suite out of his complete ballet, he jettisoned large stretches of music that frankly amount to little more than noodling.
In consequence, pretty as these passages were, what we heard served much of the time as a relatively ignorable backdrop to what we saw. In the persons of Jackie Manyaapelo (dancing spectacularly in the central role of The Seeker) and her fellow dancers, supplemented by the wondrous constructions of the Handspring Puppet Company, the stage action largely overshadowed the music. That effect was redoubled by the similarly spectacular singing of the virtuoso and irresistibly charming Ladysmith Black Mambazo ensemble in the first half of the program. That half, moreover, was rounded out with premieres of Nolan Williams’s skillful arrangements of two Russian folk songs alluded to in Stravinsky’s score, “The Vain Suitor”—Williams’s version reminiscent of a Bach chorale prelude in its superimposition of melody over decorative figurations—and “The Larch Tree.” In collaboration with the Ladysmith group, they were finely sung, respectively, by Andrew Lawson and the totally spellbinding Zeek.
With the exception of some projections that I found distracting and somewhat irrelevant, the whole production was an enormous success. But then, I have to confess that I can’t multitask, and it may well be that this element plays convincingly for a younger generation gifted with the ability to do that.