Nicola Benedetti - Stravinsky: The Soldier's Tale - The Times

When Stravinsky wrote The Soldier’s Tale in 1918 he scored it for miniature forces because enormous economic dislocation and a global pandemic had made it impossible for a large orchestra to perform together on stage. Sound familiar?

His distillation of the Faust legend, where a soldier unwittingly sells his soul to the devil, certainly fits the slimmed-down resources of both his time and ours, with only seven musicians and three actors to tell the story through narration and music.

It’s one of the composer’s weaker dramatic works, however. The text, by CF Ramuz, is unnecessarily long and goes down far too many narrative dead ends. Furthermore, text and music exist side by side but interact surprisingly rarely: there are long stretches without one or the other, suggesting the composer hadn’t quite figured out how to integrate them.

This Edinburgh International Festival staging couldn’t solve those problems, but it wisely adopted minimal set and props to allow what action there was to breathe. Thomas Allen was neat casting as the narrator. Allen retired from singing baritone on the operatic stage in 2019, but he knows his way around a music drama and narrated the tale with the air of an elder statesman. Anthony Flaum, another singer, acted the soldier with winning charm and a hugely expressive face, though I’d have appreciated more sulphurous charm from Siobhan Redmond’s polite devil.

The real drama, however, was always in Stravinsky’s music, by turns abrasive, witty and lyrical. The seven elite musicians of the band were led by Nicola Benedetti from the all-important violin, sounding fantastic in the double-stopped frolic that the soldier plays to the sick princess. The team integrated so successfully that it seems unfair to single out any individual, but I doubt anyone plays a clarinet as mellifluously as Maximiliano Martín, poignant and wonderful in the lament. The brass swagger in the royal scenes was full of bravura, and in the devil’s final triumph Louise Goodwin’s percussion swallowed up fiendishly what was left of the melody.

Halfway through the show deafening rain began to hammer on the roof of the pavilion in the grounds of the Edinburgh Academy Junior School, but even with this the music was never less than gripping.

The Times
23 August 2021