Petrushka – New York Philharmonic/Giants Are Small: Barbican Centre, London, 19 April 2015

Puppetry in motion. Giants Are Small and the New York Philharmonic clowning around for Petrushka. Photo by Chris Lee

Puppetry in motion. Giants Are Small and the New York Philharmonic clowning around for Petrushka. Photo by Chris Lee

Roll up, roll up!

It’s not every day that you see an orchestra of such international esteem as the New York Philharmonic all wearing fluffy hats when they’re playing. But that’s the sort of thing that happens when you put production company Giants Are Small in charge of stage management. Not to mention the puppets, film crews and giant bears.

Petrushka is one of Ballets Russes most celebrated ballets and for many people, Stravinsky’s score is one of his finest. It concerns the tragic misadventures of a puppet clown who falls in love with a puppet ballerina and ends up at the wrong end of a puppet moor’s sword. The result is puppet tragedy.

This central story is actually the weakest part of Giants Are Small’s production. The puppets, which get bigger as the story develops, are beautifully managed but aren’t given a great deal of stage time – the clown’s death is a brief affair and not at all moving. Also, although you want to be looking at the puppeteers working so diligently at the front of the stage, you begrudgingly find you have to watch the live relay on the big screen hanging over the orchestra because seeing the clever pre-recorded footage is the only way to make sense of the story.

Never mind, because this Petrushka works best in the way it creates the required fairground atmosphere by incorporating the orchestra. Thus we have a cameraman wandering the stage beaming live close-up pictures of the percussion section tipsily drinking vodka, the trumpets getting sloshed on beer and the horns demurely sipping tea. Two violinists get into a fight and another steps out and does some juggling with a vodka bottle, an over-sized glass and a Russian doll. Furthermore the audience are invited to give a blood-curdling yell when the giant bear appears which we do with such force that the harpist faints. Also, because conductor Alan Gilbert is actually a wizard, he allows his baton to float unaided in mid-air to conduct the flautist while all the other musicians sway in time. It’s all a bit of a laugh.

To be honest, I’m not a big fan of the ballet Petrushka, nor (mea culpa) of it’s score, but I really enjoyed this and it’s wonderful to see an orchestra trying to liven up their visual appeal in such a way.

Two rather more traditional musical readings had opened the night. It’s always instructive to hear ballet scores in the concert hall without the visual distraction of the dancing and the swooping ebb and flow of Debussy’s Jeux is a far more interesting piece than reconstructions of Nijinsky’s choreography would suggest. Bela Bartok’s The Miraculous Mandarin suite started and concluded brilliantly with stringed rhythmic punches but sagged inbetween with lots of notes apparently not on speaking terms with each other.

Gerard Davis

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