OPERA NEWS - Into the Woods
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Into the Woods

Théâtre du Châtelet

In Review Into the Woods Paris hdl 714
Paris fairy tale: Into the Woods at the Châtelet, with Garrett, Klein and Buffle
© Marie-Noëlle Robert/Théâtre du Châtelet 2014

Stephen Sondheim has now conquered the French capital, thanks to the innovative programming at Théâtre du Châtelet, which marked its fourth Sondheim production with the premiere of Into the Woods on April 1. After the success of A Little Night Music (2010), Sweeney Todd (2011) and Sunday in the Park with George (2013), Lee Blakeley again directed, with David Charles Abell conducting the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris. 

The first act of Into the Woods proposes a seemingly lighthearted entertainment centered on the story of the Baker and the Baker's Wife, who are attempting to lift a curse placed on them by the Witch, which prevents them from having children. They interact in the woods with well-known characters from fairy tales, including Cinderella, Jack (of Beanstalk fame) and Little Red Riding Hood to collect elements from their stories to convince the Witch to lift the spell. James Lapine's brilliant libretto presents the Baker and his Wife as a bickering contemporary couple set against the more archetypal characters from the fairy tales, who are drawn with wit, precision and internal rhymes and tongue-twisting patter that are fully the equal of those in Gilbert's brilliant texts for Sullivan's Savoy operas. The plot seems to be resolved at the end of Act I, but just when the audience is lulled into a potential "happily ever after" ending, there follows a second act of a quite different dramatic color. The idealistic fairy-tale characters and their stories crumble as the consequences of what really happened are explored, and we see a violent, disordered world without the candy coating of a fairytale: an angry Giant, voiced to chic effect by French actress Fanny Ardant, searches for vengeance; the Baker's wife is killed; and Cinderella leaves her Prince to be loved for her true self. The troubled survivors support each other and form a compromised family unit, making for a soft-centered happy ending in which "no one is alone." Bruno Bettelheim's 1976 book The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales was obviously a reference here, although Bettelheim's Freudian analysis finds adults triumphing over dark forces for a traditional happy ending. In Into the Woods, Lapine and Sondheim provide a more complex Jungian approach exploring the collective consciousness — a world of delicate personal arrangements in the face of cruel reality. 

The score is one of Sondheim's finest, orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick with enriched strings to fill the Châtelet. The composer's text-driven melodic themes are sublimated by his complex orchestral punctuation, and by subtle counterpoint that weaves these elements into continuous musical paragraphs, brilliantly executed here by Abell and his orchestra. 

Alex Eales's set opened like a doll's house, with each fairy tale existing in its own separate world before magically transforming into a forest of threatening mystery. The timing here, both musical and dramatic, is crucial, and Blakeley handled the quickfire changes with skill, drawing excellently judged performances from the entire cast. Leslie Clack's knowing narrator, the pompous striding of Damian Thantrey as Cinderella's aristocratic prince, and Francesca Jackson's flouncy, naughty Little Red Riding Hood all joined in this company triumph. The cast was largely classically trained; other performances characterized by fine singing were Pascal Charbonneau's Jack, Kimy McLaren's Cinderella and the winning couple of Nicholas Garrett and Christine Buffle as the Baker and the Baker's Wife. The towering performance of the evening was Beverley Klein's Witch, who ranged from comic cackling to frightening maternal possessiveness of her daughter Rapunzel, sweetly sung by Louise Alder. spacer


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