Have you ever sat beside a lake at night and listened to the sounds? Or stood on an urban street corner in inky blackness or more exactly in a snowstorm where the world becomes unfamiliar in the swirling blur and the sounds become mysterious slushes and whooshes?
Helmut Lachenmann’s The Little Match Girl is not quite an opera, as one expects, but more a music-surround with images. Around 120 combined musicians and singers of Spoleto Festival Orchestra USA and Westminster Choir have created an astonishing aural tapestry with about a dozen puppeteers/movement-actors adding visual texture by creating a world in silhouette. With this extraordinary assembly, Lachenmann gets us to “look with [our] ears and listen with [our] eyes.”
The piece begins on strings, something not quite audible that grows into something not quite music but like the whir of wings of insects. Then a “ktok” punctuates the air made by a mallet on a hollowed wooden block. This is followed by plucks, drips, cracks, hisses, whooshes, and slides.
Seated on a platform and balconies about twenty feet above the auditorium floor and extending around the walls, the orchestra and chorus members create sounds above and all around the audience. Two soprano soloists, Heather Buck and Yuko Kakuta, stand on opposite sides of the front of the orchestra, dressed in identical full-length black dresses, each with a long braid burnished like a new copper penny, represent both the central character in the story and co-leaders of the chorus. They connect both the interior experience of Little Match Girl and the atmosphere around her.
The intentionality of the entire group as they follow the most complicated of scores bore a palpable energy, and John Kennedy conducted the piece with keen understanding and seriousness. For these reasons alone, it was shocking that perhaps 30 people walked out of the performance on opening night. The combined efforts and dedication of these artists alone, in the service of the composer’s vision, deserved our admiration.
The Little Match Girl
Spoleto Festival USA
Charleston, South Carolina
May 29 – June 4, 2016
1 hour, 45 minutes, no intermission
Details and tickets
Spoleto is known for bringing not just the best from around the world. To retain its preeminence, the festival must bring the most daring and thus challenge our preconceptions about music, dance, theatre and opera advancing those forms. Haven’t most of us heard the story of the angry riot that ensued the first time Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” played in Paris?
Many of us are afraid of what we can’t understand. Art can make us look at and confront this phenomenon. Great art can move us forward.
Lachenmann’s work indeed challenges, but I found it most remarkable if not always likeable. One of its most brilliant aspects was in his choice of material. The Little Match Girl is an uncomplicated but powerful story. Most of us carry some sense of the work from our childhood, flickering images as if, like what was staged before us, lit by a match. The audience co-participates in imbuing the sounds and images with meaning. We feel the cold, get lost in the darkness, huddle there in a sense of aloneness, and drift as the little girl does from a kind of hyper-vigilance into semi-consciousness as the sounds continue to swirl around us.
The visual style of the show clearly was influenced by the work of early animators, chiefly Lotte Reiniger, the gifted German silhouette artist, who created one of the great animated films of all times, The Adventures of Prince Achmed. Using both shadow puppets and actors in silhouette, the performers give us glimpses of a cut-out world of sharp edges. Some of the simplest elements work the best. As the Little Match Girl loses her slipper in the story, so a shoe carried on a stick “flies” through the air. When the girl nearly gets trampled between carriages, visions of spoked wheels grow to immense size and spin all around. A primitive artistic rendition of a box of matches transforms to a single giant match that begins to glow red, and the red bathes the entire screen in a warm glow.
The text, a deconstruction of the story mixes German and English and some political tracts thrown in, I do believe, literally comes at us lit from behind with words and phrases floating in silhouette. The audience must metaphorically grab them on the fly and make sense of them, as if putting pieces of a puzzle together.
Just as each audience member hears his or her own world of sound, so each creates a singular story line. For me in the frozen world of a single dark night of the soul, each person discovers there is nothing to hang onto, certainly not life itself, but there are memories of warmth and happy times, and there is love. A life flickers like a fragile light from a match; the light rises and is gone.
At one point in the evening, Lachenmann allows himself and the audience two notes to come together in harmonic progression. A word floats on the screen. It is “God.” Is God then harmony of the spheres?
There are a couple of elements that have not yet come together. James F. Ingalls is one of the most talented lighting designers working on the world stages. He has managed a remarkable feat in reducing his forces and creating a clean, “primitive” use of pinpricks of light visually to match the composer’s minimalist style. However, the cans that needed to shoot through from upstage to light the words on placards that were yanked on and off stage were not timed sufficiently well. Sometimes the signs became blurry, at others the lights grievously flooded into the audience’s eyes and reminded me of the excesses of early Peter Sellars’ productions.
The second aspect I found disconcerting is that the placement of the musicians above us meant their music stand lights spilled out destroying the magic that total darkness for the screened visuals would have made.
Overall, however, this was a most important work to bring to Spoleto, and it will continue to bring up its images to my mind.
The Little Match Girl . Music and Libretto by Helmut Lachenmann . Conducted by David Kennedy . Co-directed by Mark Down and Phelim McDermott . Produced by Spoleto Festival USA in collaboration with Blind Summit Theatre and Improbable theater company . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.