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At Ravinia, new take on ‘Firebird’ undone by murky storytelling

A scene from "The Firebird," created by Janni Younge of Handspring Puppet Company and presnted with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival. (Photo: Patrick Gipson)

Unlike Saturday, when a torrential downpour hit the Ravinia Festival on its gala evening, Tuesday was one of those summer nights that could not have been more ideal for a special concert in the park.

Leading the orchestra was Ben Gernon — a boyishly handsome English conductor with impressive credits and a poetic but economical style, who was making both his Ravinia and Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuts. The program was devoted to exploring the musical language of the sea (by way of Claude Debussy’s “La mer” and Benjamin Britten’s “Four Sea Interludes” from his opera, “Peter Grimes”), and of the air (by way of a radically new interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” created by puppet theater artist Janni Younge, of South Africa’s acclaimed Handspring Puppet Company).

English conductor Ben Gernon made his Ravinia and Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut with “The Firebird” and other works. (Photo: Patrick Gipson)
English conductor Ben Gernon made his Ravinia and Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut with “The Firebird” and other works. (Photo: Patrick Gipson)

The program was ambitious, to be sure, but not entirely satisfying for a number of reasons.

First, the purely symphonic pieces. With the orchestra arrayed more upstage than usual, the conductor was obscured (except on video), by the huge muslin “egg” suspended above the stage throughout (until it opened at the very end of “The Firebird” and morphed into a gargantuan, mythical bird).

That massive sphere was a significant visual distraction that stole focus from the subtly colored impressionism of the Debussy and even the stormy pull of Britten’s music that opened the evening, Nevertheless, Gernon tapped the orchestra’s ability to create beautiful passages of transparent playing — with the strings, horns, winds, harp and percussion conjuring atmospheric calm and agitation in the Debussy, as well as the lovely, wonder-filled awakening moments of Britten’s “Dawn” interlude, and the great storm of the final section that draws on all the force of the mighty ensemble that is the CSO.

If the giant egg stole focus from the first half of the program, the orchestra seemed all too visible in ‘The Firebird” — director-designer Younge’s dance/theater piece that involved eye-popping puppetry in many styles and on many scales, along with an uneven hash of choreography by Jay Pather that drew on modern dance, African dance and acrobatics. Far too much was going on in this piece as it played out on the long, narrow, crowded downstage area in front of the orchestra. And it was more than simply a problem of logistics.

Younge, who works in the Handspring tradition (she is part of the company that devised the hypnotic man-powered horse puppets for the hit show “War Horse”), has tried to incorporate far too many ideas in her rethinking of the 1910 Stravinsky work created for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and based on a Russian fairy tale.

The original story tells of a magical bird whose life is spared when she gives the prince who has tried to capture her a protective feather, and he eventually breaks the spell of an evil magician by destroying the egg in which the magician’s soul is hidden. Here, Younge has tried to devise a story about the changes in post-apartheid South Africa, and it all gets muddled, so that even a reading of the elaborate program notes leaves many things unclear.

Jackie Manyaapelo (left) is the Seeker and Mongi Mtoombeni is the Alchemist in “The Firebird,” created by Janni Younger. (Photo: Patrick Gibson)
Jackie Manyaapelo (left) is the Seeker and Mongi Mtoombeni is the Alchemist in “The Firebird,” created by Janni Younger. (Photo: Patrick Gibson)

Instead of a prince there is a lovely young woman, the Seeker (Jackie Manyaapelo, a graceful, willowy beauty), in search of liberation and free expression. The poverty of apartheid South Africa is recalled by way of animated drawings (evocative of William Kentridge’s, but without the brilliance) projected on the surface of the egg — with a once impoverished mother and child finally having a better little house, and running water, and with local children heading to school. But along with these changes comes a destructive downside, too.

Overseeing the woman’s development (not always gently), is the Alchemist of Honesty (Mongi Mthombeni), a forceful older woman who wields significant power. As the Seeker encounters a flock of male birds she is attracted (but not entirely welcomed) by one of them. Later, a larger-than-lifesize boy and girl (wooden marionettes set in motion by the dancers), also become part of the story, but if you asked me to explain any of the relationships here I wouldn’t have a clue about where to start.

The monumental puppet creatures — including exquisitely wrought, fluidly human-propelled snakes, a great horned beast, and finally the enormous, smoke-expelling, dinosaur-like bird-in-the-egg, arrive. They are magnificent, but again, their role in the story remains impossible to fathom.

Along the way, Stravinsky’s score also gets lost. Ideally, this “Firebird” would be performed with an orchestra in the pit, and the full stage used for the spectacle. But before any of that happens, the storytelling needs to be retooled.

Two of the puppet creatures in Janni Younge’s “The Firebird,” at the Ravinia Festival. (Photo: Patrick Gipson)
Two of the puppet creatures in Janni Younge’s “The Firebird,” at the Ravinia Festival. (Photo: Patrick Gipson)