13 Dec 2011

Kurt Weill’s Magical Night, Linbury Studio Theatre, London

Buzz Lightyear Meets Hansel and Gretel! Most children who have grown up in the Toy Story era know that toys come alive when left to their own devices.

But the celebrated Pixar films paradoxically avoid the question of what would happen if children unexpectedly encountered their own toys in a state of animation. Kurt Weill’s fascinating 1920s ballet, or more correctly “Children’s Pantomime” (Kinderpantomime), Magical Night (Zaubernacht), his earliest surviving work for the stage, takes that moment as its imaginative starting point.

Kurt Weill's Magical Night now on at the Linbury Studio Theatre of the Royal Opera House, London, has a remarkable history. Written to a scenario supplied by the original choreographer, the otherwise obscure Wladimir Boritsch, it was given three performances at the Theater am Kurf├╝rstendamm, Berlin, in November 1922. In 1925 it received a second production at the Garrick Theatre, New York, but the score was subsequently lost. In the 1990s Meirion Bowen bravely attempted a reconstruction from an incomplete piano rehearsal score, and his version was premiered in Germany in 2000.

But then in 2005 a set of original orchestral parts was discovered in a vault in Yale University Library, and this allowed a much more authentic version of the score to be reconstructed for the Kurt Weill Edition (2008). This was premiered at the Musikfest Stuttgart in September 2010. The ROH production thus represents a bold investment in a largely forgotten work which has only recently become available for performance. It is fair to assume, of course, that Magical Night would almost certainly not have been revived if, by some chance, Weill had died before he composed Die Dreigroschenoper. It is Weill’s name and the knowledge of what he achieved later that generates initial interest and makes revival commercially viable. But this is less a comment on the intrinsic merits of Magical Night than it is on the difficulty of building up a head of steam behind any unknown ballet. Magical Night is not a rediscovered masterpiece, but it is felicitous music with a vital rhythmic pulse that, matched with appropriate choreography, can be an arresting and enchanting theatrical experience: which is exactly what the ROH production offers.

Not that much is known of the original scenario for which Weill wrote his music. In his invaluable Kurt Weill: A Handbook, David Drew was able to suggest (mainly on the basis of press reports) that it went something like this: “As ‘the Girl’ and ‘the Boy’ fall asleep, the Fairy enters and sings her magic spell. One by one the children’s toys, and the characters from their storybooks, are brought to life. Presently, the children themselves become involved in a phantasmagoria where, for instance, Anderson’s Tin Soldier helps rescue Hansel and Gretel. At the end, the Witch is hunted by the assembled company, and at last disposed of. The Fairy then vanishes, the children sink back into a dreamless sleep, and their mother tiptoes into the room to close the curtains.” The Kurt Weill Foundation states that “Directors and choreographers are encouraged to create their own scenarios that are appropriate to the music.”

The scenario Aletta Collins has devised for the Linbury production follows the broad outline of Drew’s reconstruction, but also makes some telling changes. Anyone wishing to remain in ignorance of the story now being staged should skip the rest of this paragraph. Two young children, Megan and Jason, are playing with their toys just before bedtime; they quarrel, and Megan pulls the tail off Chimpy, Jason’s favorite toy. Their mother tells them to go to bed. At midnight the Pink Fairy comes to life and casts a spell that animates various other toys, too. The toys dance together, not always in perfect accord. The children wake up and get drawn into the dance. Chimpy accuses Megan of pulling off his tail. Megan, upset, withdraws from the group and draws a picture of a witch. The toys try to warn her that this is unwise, but it is too late, and Sarah Good, an evil witch, appears as the physical embodiment of the picture. What happens next is a little unclear, but gradually it becomes obvious that the witch is using her magic to take control of the other characters. She lures Jason into a cooker, and throws in the Pink Fairy for good measure. But the other toys manage to distract the witch and stage a rescue; there is some superb comedy here as Mighty Robot, a Buzz Lightyear-like character, woos the witch through dance. Finally the two children realize that by manipulating Megan’s picture they can take control of the witch. After screwing it up, and throwing her into convulsions, they tear it to pieces, at which point Sarah Good spectacularly explodes in a shower of paper.

Even young children are likely to be reminded of Hansel and Gretel, the story expressly referenced in the original ballet; older ones will probably see a connection to Harry Potter, and adults may recollect The Picture of Dorian Gray and similar tales. The fact that the new Magical Night is so strongly evocative of earlier stories does not diminish it, though; rather it makes it powerfully familiar, expressing ideas which have become part of our collective imagination, our modern myths of evil and possession. It appears to be rather deeper than Boritsch’s playful fantasy, with a more obvious psychological message: just as we can easily create the objects of our fears, so we can destroy them. The ballet enacts the “explanation” of fairy stories that has often been put forward: they help children understand and master their fears.

The new story is not exactly “in” the music. There is no obvious darkening of the sonic landscape as the witch exerts her baleful influence. But Weill’s music throughout has a certain edgy, threatening feel to it—at no point can it be called jolly—and allows, from the beginning, some sinister potential. It is also music that seems to require rather than demand visual realization, supporting rather than dominating the represented action. In this sense visual cues influence what is heard at least as much as auditory cues condition what is seen.

Weill’s original orchestration is brighter, bolder and more percussive than Bowen’s version (which has been recorded). It is less subtle and studied, perhaps not surprisingly, but this works to its advantage. In the early 1920s Weill, who was studying with Busoni, experienced what Richard Taruskin has taught us to regard as the quintessential dilemma of the modern composer: torn between writing “art” music for the cognoscenti in the concert hall or more accessible music for the larger audience at the theatre. Some of that tension is felt in Magical Night, a remarkably sophisticated score for a Kinderpantomime, and it would be fascinating to know what the mature Weill thought of it. But Bowen pushed it too far towards the “art” music side of the dilemma, and it was refreshing to hear that the young Weill actually wanted something brasher and livelier, more popular in tone.

Magical Night is beautifully staged in the perfectly-sized Linbury Studio Theatre. The first part, and the last, take place in a very realistic-looking children’s bedroom. This is literally split in two for the witch’s dramatic entrance, and when her power is at its zenith it is turned inside out, revealing a black shadow-world with all the necessary equipment for her fiendish culinary arts. The dancers and the choreography are superb, with lots of customized moves to distinguish the characters, and abilities, of the different toys.

To get the expert opinion of a child, I brought along my five-year-old daughter, Annie Ashizu, for a second opinion. Being well acquainted with the Toy Story trilogy, as well as Hansel and Gretel, she had more than enough imaginative equipment to be able to grasp, and be absorbed by, Magical Night. Her first words at the end were of the kind to delight any parent keen to introduce their child to the magic of live entertainment: “Papa, I love this theatre [work]. I wish I could see it two times!” She hadn’t said that after The Lion King, her previous benchmark for theatrical greatness, and as we left Covent Garden I couldn’t resist asking her if she thought Magical Night as good as Disney’s epic. “Yes,” she replied unhesitatingly; “actually, it was better!” This may turn out to be the greatest tribute to the success of ROH’s production to be found in any of the reviews. Annie instinctively loved the Pink Fairy and clearly experienced the end of the story as empowering. She talked about the characters all the way home, when she fell asleep her head was still full of them, and she woke up talking of how she had dreamed of being the Pink Fairy. We’ll be going again.

David Chandler