When Stravinsky wrote “The Soldier’s Tale,” his 1918 dramatic work that combines spoken text with a seven-piece chamber ensemble, he had in mind the touring puppet shows and playing troupes he encountered in the Russia of his youth. Over the years, when “The Soldier’s Tale” has been presented as a staged drama or a ballet, it has often been updated or mythologized. It is probably best known as a concert work, without its spoken text.
On Sunday night the Yale in New York series, now in its seventh season, presented a fresh, funny and aptly ominous staged production of “The Soldier’s Tale” at Zankel Hall, a collaboration between the Yale School of Music and the Yale School of Drama. The original French text, by C. F. Ramuz, was performed in a playfully poetic new English translation by Liz Diamond, who also directed. Every production team member and performer, including the acclaimed actor Michael Cerveris, who was the narrator, was either a graduate of Yale (like Mr. Cerveris), a faculty member (like the clarinetist David Shifrin and the violinist Ani Kavafian, who played in the ensemble), or a student in the music or drama school.
The tale tells of a Russian soldier, heading home on leave, who is enticed by the Devil to trade his beloved violin for a book that shows the means to making a fortune. Though the concept of this Yale production was nothing daring, the staging was so imaginative that this familiar work seemed newly powerful. The chamber ensemble gave a tart, incisive performance of the score, with not a bit of cuteness.