THE SOLDIER'S TALE
To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the 39th Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte is staging an itinerant Storia del Soldato – Histoire du Soldat by I. Stravinsky, with words by Swiss writer C. F. Ramuz. Amongst the many artistic revolutions which occurred during the first world war, La Storia del Soldato is one of the most surprising for its modernity, its esthetics and the experimental combination of music, theatre and dance.
Storia del Soldato is staged in four of the towns which are part of Fondazione Cantiere Internazionale d’Arte: Montepulciano, Sarteano, Cetona and San Casciano dei Bagni, reinforcing the important partnership between Montepulciano and its surroundings and respecting Stravinsky’s conception of the performance. In 1918, in fact, the composer and some of his friends felt the need to put on some easily staged music and theatre productions in small towns in Switzerland as a remedy against the dreadful economic situation of that last year of the War. The initial plan was to start the tour in Lausanne and move from village to village with a sort of caravan, but this unfortunately never happened due to the “Spanish flu" plague.
The project involves local and foreign musicians, professionals and amateurs, who are conducted by Fabio Maestri and directed by Jean-Philippe Clarc and Olivier Deloeuil of the C&D Le Lab of Bordeaux.
Cooperation between amateurs and professionals is not only the most authentic feature of the Cantiere but was also that of Stravinsky who originally composed the piece for amateur students and wished for this formula to continue in future performances. The staging of La storia del Soldato recalls the staging of the same show which was put on during the 1977 Cantiere, where two of the fundamental features of this year’s performance were already present: the combination of professionals (music ensemble) and local amateurs (actors and directors – at the time Carlo Pasquini) and touring around Monepulciano surroundings.
The story is a contemporary version of the Faust myth, with the First World War as a backdrop. A Soldier marches to his hometown on leave during the First World War and by chance meets the Devil in disguise who offers him a book which contains untold wealth in exchange for his fiddle. In accepting the trade, he also agrees to follow the Devil home for three days to learn about the book and to teach him about the violin. At the end of the three days, the Soldier realizes that, in fact, three years have passed: his girlfriend has married another man and has children, and his mother, like everyone else in the village, believes he is dead. The Soldier runs into the Devil in a new disguise who reminds him to use the book’s magic powers and with his knowledge he quickly amasses great wealth. However, he soon realizes that he wants to win back the life he had before and his beloved. The Devil visits him dressed up in a different way and shows him the fiddle which once belonged to him and which the Soldier wants to buy from him. When he finds out that the violin makes no sound, he hurls it away and tears the book up.
The Soldier is now poor and while returning to his hometown, he arrives in a foreign village where he hears the news that the King’s daughter is ill and whoever will be able to raise her from her bed will be given her hand in marriage. The Soldier meets the Devil once again, dressed up as virtuoso violinist, and they start playing cards together: he loses all his money and goods but finally gets his fiddle back. He enters the Princess’ room and starts playing his violin; the Princess is miraculously resurrected and begins to dance, first a tango, then a waltz and then a ragtime. The Soldier and the Princess embrace but suddenly the Devil arrives. The Soldier realizes he can defeat the Devil by playing his fiddle. The Soldier and the Princess marry but soon after the wedding he is tempted by the idea of re-conquering his beloved in his hometown. As soon as he passes the frontier post of the castle the Devil takes control of him again and steals his violin. The Soldier gives up trying to fight against the Devil.
Putting the audience and their everyday context at the heart of the performance, the staging is inspired by travelling theater and takes inspiration from contemporary art installations in situ. The audience takes part in a multidisciplinary art happening where music, theatre and contemporary art are questioned by the actors onstage to the spectators, who become part of the performance. The clear line which defines the roles of actors, musicians and spectators is purposely no longer visible. Everyone takes part in Storia del Soldato, a show which changes at every performance. The only unambiguous element of the scene is a big, light-colored wood structure, which can be completely taken apart, and which leans on a military truck during the show.
The minimalistic esthetic pursued in this adaptation encouraged us to choose plain, austere lighting, costumes and accessories which all carry strong symbolic meaning. The close relationship between performers and spectators and its extreme minimalism are the defining elements which make the show original, and both simple and sophisticated at the same time.
The directors write: “It is a show about war, without battles or special effects. The story is shorn of all superficial elements but not of its strength. It’s not a historical play about the First World War but a show inspired by it. The soldier in the story isn’t a specific person but every soldier who took part in the war. It’s not a show about Europe in 1914, but rather a show about Europe today, a performance about each one of us, right here and now.”
Histoire du Soldat represents an innovative turning point in music esthetics of the XX century: It is a perfectly realized experiment of musical theatre, where the relationship between acting and singing, scene and orchestra are completely renovated. For the same reasons which inspired the conception of the composition, it is written for a chamber orchestra which is the miniature version of a symphonic one.
He creates a broad color scale, simply by choosing highly representative instruments from each family. He chooses those with the highest and the lowest pitch for the strings, the violin and double bass; among woodwinds, he opts for the clarinet, because it has the widest register, and the bassoon; he picks out the cornet and the trombone from among the brass instruments; and finally, a percussion set. He exalts the timbre, register and color of each instrument and achieves an extraordinary effect.
The score is a series of clearly differentiated pieces which each develop a precise rhythm-timbre concept. It is presented as a sort of a suite and includes different styles which now and again ironically allude to a western tradition: a folk French song, a Spanish paso-doble, a ragtime, an Argentinian tango, a Waltz, two Lutheran chorals.