As the creative director on the project, Michael Adams, put it, Igor Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale is “a combination of ‘The Devil made me do it’ and ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’
If you don’t know it, this is a dark little tale from a folk story collection written by Alexander Nikolayevich Afanasyev, the 19th-century Russian equivalent to the Brothers’ Grimm. The French title, L’histoire du Soldatwas adopted by Stravinsky and the librettist, Carlos Ferdinand Ramuz.
But the original title from Afanasyev’s version was The Runaway Soldier and The Devil. That suggests a soldier gone AWOL rather than on leave, which is how he appears in the current version. In either case, the runaway is his nature exactly: He is an impetuous dreamer looking for a quick fix to his life, and no match for big “D.”
The plot stems from a devilish bargain — the soldier’s fiddle in exchange for a book, the ultimate self-help book, if you like. It’s about the future.
The story does not end well, the devil gets his due; hence the power of the allegory and the moral stated by the narrator:
You must not seek to add
To what you have, what you once had;
You have no right to share
What you are with what you were.
No one can have it all,
That is forbidden.
You must learn to choose between.
And so you’re thinking, ‘wait a minute! Is this for children?’ It is because the original has been shortened, the narration simplified, and the presentation adapted to kids 6 and over. All the instrumentalists dance.
“It’s a definitive performance,” says Adams. “A full staging, with elaborate costumes. Seven musicians, four actors (devil, soldier, narrator, and the princess; a professional dancer). Conductor is Tom Conlin. This is the real thing.”
“It’s a very challenging score,” Adams adds. “We were careful to pick musicians who had played it before.” Several come from the San Francisco Symphony, including the bass player, bassoonist, and percussionist.
The Soldier’s Tale was designed originally with portability in mind and was first performed in Lausanne in 1918, but the tour ended abruptly when one after another of the participants were struck with the Spanish flu. It was not performed again until 1924.
This production is co-produced by Music In The Vineyard and the Napa Valley Museum. Adults $10, Children $5. More information: The Soldiers Tale family concert at Music In the Vineyard.
Mark MacNamara is a journalist who has written for such publications as Salon.com, Vanity Fair, Newsweek, The Stanford Social Innovation Review and The International Herald Tribune. His website is: macnamband.com.