The Soldier’s Tale – Edinburgh International Festival

Written by Igor Stravinsky

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Lue, jouée et dansée (to be read, played, and danced) – the only manner in which Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale is to be shared, or so they say. It is a darkly humorous story of Faustian bargains and the value of both simplicity and the heart. Nicola Benedetti’s closing performance as the Edinburgh International Festival’s artist in residence is a bittersweet embankment on a musical storytelling adventure that leans heavily into the narrative and performance elements, that forsakes the dance for exquisite instrumentals.

Marching across dusted roads, alone except for his fiddle, a soldier has a chance meeting with a peculiar man; a man who has an interest in this instrument and offers a crimson leather-bound book in return. A book which speaks of the future, and all it costs is this fiddle and a few days of the soldier’s time.

As equally encouraging to children as it is for older audiences, Stravinsky’s witty The Soldier’s Tale is openly accessible for all. In breaking from a fastidious aura of classical texts, stories, and spoken elements, the piece possesses a more traditionally musical theatre twang. One that opens the gates to an easier production to digest, appreciate and consume.

The Soldier’s Tale allows freedom, particularly for the narrator whose control of the text is marvellous, and a powerful example of traditional storytelling. Sir Thomas Allen does not command so much as incites the audience’s investment, not only through projection and annunciation, but by adjusting the pacing and rhythm of his speech to coincide with the orchestra. In doing so, he is able to timber himself into allowing the spoken word to ride on the peaks and dips of the instrumental portions with grace. An opera legend in his own right, the influence and understanding of the score that Sir Thomas demonstrates is insightful to say the least. 

Storytelling takes precedence above all, and while the incorporated elements of different musical genres, fleeting choreographed sequences, and traditional theatre dynamics are impressive, it is the narration and music which forges the path for the devil and soldier. That said, the choreographed sequences suffer somewhat, undoubtedly due to the minimal space of the venue. As a result, they come over as a touch more two-step than dances with the devil.

Resident artist Nicola Benedetti is excellent as both the lead violinist and narrative device for the magical instrument, out-shining the remainder of the orchestra. While initially it comes off as distracting that neither Anthony Flaum nor Siobhan Redmond play the fiddle themselves, the distinct style and speed that Benedetti weaves throughout the tale is magical in its own. In her closing performance as the resident artist, the Edinburgh International Festival may lose something extraordinary, but she bows out in a meaningful fashion which demonstrates her prominence and wealth of talent.

Despite these strengths, The Soldier’s Tale concludes with a whimper rather than the grandeur one might expect. A match of wits in which the Prince of Darkness is bested by the talents of a soldier and his fiddle should make for something memorable, but Redmond’s characterisation lacks the necessary Mephistophelean presence.

Edging towards a more lyrical retelling of the tale, stripped back to its integral components of storytelling and spoken word, The Soldier’s Tale recognises the immeasurable talent of its musicians. There’s a sublime simplicity within the telling of the story, but in doing so, the cracks and niggles mark themselves. That said, while the devil may be in the details, the journey is nevertheless worth undertaking.

Review published for The Wee Review

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