Saturday, March 10, 2012

A fresh new take on Peter and the Wolf

Last night I took my daughter and two grandsons, aged 6 and 3, to Peter and the Wolf at the Michael Fowler Centre. Staged as part of the International Arts Festival, it was a once-only performance, and an unusual one in that the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra played Prokofiev’s score while an animated film of the famous Russian fairy tale was projected onto a giant screen above the stage.

It would have been a challenging exercise for the conductor, Hamish McKeich, since the orchestra had to be perfectly in synch with the film. But the effect was fantastic.

The film itself is a tour de force and deservedly won the Academy Award in 2006 for best short film (they do get things right occasionally). Directed by English animator Suzie Templeton with Polish and Norwegian co-producers, it’s a highly original interpretation - fairy tale meets social realism - of an otherwise familiar story. Templeton’s Peter and the Wolf is uncompromisingly dark in places, the sort of animated movie Ken Loach might have directed if he made animated movies, but also uproariously funny.

Templeton brings the story up to date by setting it in a bleak, contemporary location somewhere in Eastern Europe. There's no narration; the audience are left to work out the story for themselves, which is just fine. Another example of the director’s readiness to break with tradition is that the hunters in this version are not hearty, bearded heroes coming to the rescue, but a pair of nasty white-trash types with whom Peter has had an unpleasant encounter early in the piece.

Fortunately, just when things threaten to get a little too grim, the tension is released with explosions of riotous humour – much of it at the expense of the cat in the story, which is here depicted as fat, spoiled and sly. What particularly impressed me was that though the visual gags are often quite sophisticated, the children who made up most of the audience got the joke every time. In fact the NZSO strained at times to make itself heard over the hilarity.

Apart from that small problem, Prokofiev’s familiar music never sounded better. To my untutored ears the orchestra also made a superb job of Wellington composer Jenny McLeod’s The Emperor and the Nightingale, another fairy story – this one by Hans Christian Andersen – charmingly set to music, with a lively score deftly calibrated for younger ears. Helen Medlyn, better known as an opera singer, helped breathe life into the story with an animated and full-blooded narration. But without the distraction of a film, a lot of the younger kids present – my grandsons included – squirmed and fidgeted throughout. Programming a classical concert for children can’t be easy.

Incidentally, I’ve just googled Templeton’s film (on which the music is supplied by the Philharmonia Orchestra) and I see it’s available on DVD. I’ll certainly be doing my best to get a copy – I can see it challenging Spike Milligan’s Badjelly the Witch for the status of most-requested DVD at our place when the grandsons come to stay.

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