Last night I was lucky to witness somewhat of a miracle – an excellent, engaging, accessible new opera: “Danse Russe”. The Center City Opera Theatre put on a triple bill called “Rites, Rhythm … Riot!” at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. The first half of the show was comprised of two chamber pieces by Stravinsky, “Ragtime” choreographed for two dancers, and “Renard”, a chamber opera sung by the same cast of singers and performed with five dancers. Each piece was given smooth, quirky, stylish choreograph by Kun-Yang Lin that reflected the jazz influence of the music as well as the  surrealism of much of the art of the time, and was danced with excellent skill and acting by the players. (They trumped the performance of Pulcinella with the Pennsylvania Ballet that opened the festival) Both stagings suited the music to the “t”, and from where we sat in the audience, at tables on the floor of the Perelman Theatre, we were thrown right into the informal café influence of Paris in the early 20th century.

After intermission, we got a real treat: A new opera called “Danse Russe” with music by Paul Moravec and a libretto by Terry Teachout. It told the story of the four men that created the famous “Rite of Spring,” the Ballet Russe that famously caused a riot in Paris in 1913 : composer Igor Stravinsky, impresario Sergei Diaghilev, dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and conductor Pierre Monteaux. The opera was in English and I understood every word. And good thing, too, because the libretto was clever, funny, and at times, quite touching. The text, in combination with the music and stage direction, created an enthralling inside view of the creative process behind one of Stravinsky’s, and the Ballet Russe’s, most famous pieces.

The stage direction, created by Leland Kimball of Opera Delaware, was composed of vaudeville “numbers” which moved from stylishly funny in “There’s Something about Serghoia” danced with straw hats and canes by the the composer, played by Christopher Lorge, and the conductor, played by Paul Corujo, to even more profound moments when the characters’ influence and personality came to vivid life. For example, when Stravinsky began to compose the Rite of Spring, Christopher Lorge played the music on the piano as the orchestra played its most memorable theme. Later there was a touching and beautiful trio about springtime in Russia shared by Lorge, Matt Maness as Nijinsky and Jason Switzer as Diaghilev. And there was a captivatingly-intimate moment with Diaghalev as he sat at the front of the stage and described how he was able to unite the artists in breakthrough performances, but that he himself could offer nothing without them.

The historical references were accessible to the novice as well as those more aware of the Ballet Russes. Kimball chose to place the pictures of the original creators on chairs behind the players, which reminded us that these characters once lived and breathed. There was also a famous choreographic quote when Matt Maness as Nijinsky’s performed a pantomime version of the dancer’s trademark straight hands. It made us all laugh, whether we knew the original choreography or not.

Matt Maness at  Nijinsky working with choreographer Kun-Yang Lin

Orchestra 2001 gave a solid performance of the music under the direction of Maestro Andrew Kurtz. After the performance, I heard Kurtz explain that many of the singers were young artists who had stepped in due to illness and far surpassed his expectations. They and the dancers (Scott McPhetters, Elrey C. Belmonti, Jessica Warchal-King, Jennifer Rose, Olive Prince and Wen-Chen Liu) did a fine job indeed, as did the cue-card carrying Corinn Kopczynski, who gave us a number of good laughs during the opera.

Most importantly, “Dance Russe” was a brilliant crossover, funny and accessible while stylish and lofty. It had something for everyone. Center City Opera chose to present it in a cabaret format, with chairs and tables spread out over the floor of the Perelman Theatre. We sipped cocktails and enjoyed the show while this seminal moment in musical history was cleverly slipped under our skin. It brought a landmark moment in Western Culture alive again, and gave PIFA an important moment of living history. And it did justice to the legacy of “The Rite of Spring”, which still shocks and amazes audiences. I was reminded of a moment where I, my housemate soprano saxophonist Anders Paulsson and rock producer Martin Karlegård listened to a recording of the piece to celebrate the early Swedish Spring. Even Martin, the rock producer, was taken aback.

The Center City Opera has two more performances of this not-to-be-missed piece, so go see them this afternoon at 2pm, or tomorrow, April 30th at 8pm. Tickets start at $10.

*Hallelujah Moment appears courtesy of Swedish music guru Kishti Tomita

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