The coupling of Stravinsky’s exotic ballet Petrushka with Ravel’s exquisite little opera L'Enfant et les sortilèges is both audacious and inspired. The two works share a wayward wit that presents a challenge for any would-be director. Several seconds into the performance I got carried away and felt like this could be the most perfect piece of art I’d ever seen, a thrilling combination of film, animation, acting, dance, acrobatics and one of Stravinsky’s most fecund scores. The mashing together of sound and vision is done with loving irreverence and the initial feeling of perfection did not go away.

Tiago Alexandre Neta Fonseca (The Clown) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Tiago Alexandre Neta Fonseca (The Clown)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

I had seen the odd clip or two of 1927's work online before. Performers on stage interacting with projected visuals came over a bit ‘flat’ to me, too ‘tricksy’ by half. But seeing this performance in the flesh was revelatory. The skill of the synchronization between performer and screens is eye-popping, and the cleverness of the whole conception is frankly alarming. Creators Suzanne Andrade, Esme Appleton and Paul Barritt combine forces to fill the viewer with a sense of riveted wonder beyond mere technical wizardry.

The actual mechanics of the story haven’t been reset or rudely circumvented, as one might expect from such young upstarts. Petrushka is still a puppet brought to life at a fairground. Hi-jinks ensue when he falls in love, gets into scrapes and attempts to escape his cell. And he still dies twice. There is far too much action in both the original and this production to list every twist n’ turn, but aerial hoop-dances, trampolining with dogs, and rocket ship derring-do are all heaped into the merry mixture.

The three roles of Petrushka, the Acrobat and "the Muscle Man" are taken by Tiago Alexandre Fonesca, Pauliina Räsänen and Slava Volkov. Fonesca has the rustic sleight-of-hand of Charlie Chaplin with the added bonus of actually looking like a young Stravinsky. Räsänen and Volkov are an astonishing pair of circus performers whose feats had audience members shaking their heads in sheer disbelief. The acrobatics of the Big Top seemed absolutely at home in the hallowed environs of the opera house – something of which Stravinsky, who loved a good circus, would have approved.

Tiago Alexandre Fonesca (The Clown) and Pauliina Räsänen (The Acrobat) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Tiago Alexandre Fonesca (The Clown) and Pauliina Räsänen (The Acrobat)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

Part of the genius of this production is that the hotly mercurial score is reflected with such exactitude. A quick burst of energy from the orchestra and the visuals tear off in a new direction, flashing a different aspect of the caper. When the music hits the brakes we are instantly spun around to face another scenario. This isn’t as dizzying as it may sound, as the musical jump-cuts gallop at about the rate we are used to seeing in TV and film. Has it taken us over a hundred years to catch up to this piece?

The visual aspect is a masterclass in textural variation. Some of Paul Barritt’s animations are hand drawn, others are painted, some are shaggily cut-out and made of fluff, others are smoothly projected films. This is in-keeping with Stravinsky’s score, virtuosic control of orchestral detail being his hallmark. 1927 were flaunting as many influences as you could jam together, from the Rodchenko’s graphic design, to Svankmajer’s stop-frames, King Rollo’s flat world and Stick Figure Theatre’s simple, arresting charm. Markus Poschner did as splendid a job as I’ve ever heard in conducting this fine ensemble, cajoling and ribbing the orchestra into its customary brilliance.

Nadja Mchantaf (The Child) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Nadja Mchantaf (The Child)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

The second item on the bill was Ravel’s underrated masterpiece L'Enfant et les sortilèges, with a bizarre and enchanted text by Colette. The production is an equally thoughtful and creative treatment as Petrushka, but while the invention is in abundance, the blending of physicality and projected images feels imbalanced. The enormous cast of (often off-stage) singers were in fine voice from Nadja Mchantaf as the willful Child, Ezgi Kutlu as the nagging/caring Mother, and Talya Liebermann as the Sun. Hats off too, to the massive off-stage children’s chorus.

But not even a slight misfire could dampen the effect of Petrushka. To say that the production matches Stravinsky’s score is probably the highest compliment available.

*****