Mozart would have loved Thursday’s rare matinee of the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Always one for fantasy and play, he would have zeroed right in on Janni Younge’s extraordinary larger-than-life puppets to dramatize Stravinsky’s “The Firebird.”
But first, it was a small chamber-size string orchestra that played one of his most joyous creations, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” (1787). Conductor Christian Macelaru set lively tempos for the four movements and gave plenty of lift to the phrases. The orchestra was technically crisp and light as air. Dynamic ranges were precise.
Grieg’s five Baroque dances in “From Holberg’s Time, Suite in the Old Style for Strings” (1884) were short but very tuneful. Macelaru paid attention to details and set appropriate tempos that were vigorous or warmly robust. He built the phrases with care to allow them to breathe, particularly evident in the melancholy “Air.” The “Rigaudon” was a lively jaunt, especially for concertmaster David Kim, who sparked the quicker section with a perky solo.
For the Stravinsky, the full orchestra was seated far back to give the 14 dancers and incredible puppets most of the stage. A gigantic “egg” hung from the rafters over center stage. Younge re-interpreted the Russian folk tale to be a search for self-identity with a female seeker who must grapple with her creative and destructive forces before she achieves a new vision of life. The creative forces were represented by winged humans, child puppets and a massive peacock; the destructive forces were marvelous slinky snakes, one of them about 20 feet long, and a dog-like creature with horns. These puppets — their heads and eyes were uncanny — were handled by sometimes three or four dancers to manipulate lifelike movements.
The dancing was a mix of spins, turns, stomping feet and athletically impressive lifts. Costumes were greyish, gauzy tunics or pants.
Younge worked with the sense of the music, which was the entire ballet, not the suite audiences are so used to hearing. One of the best sections was the fight between the peacock and the doglike creature, which matched the fiery, fierce music. But the piece-de-resistance was when the egg “hatched” and revealed the female dragon, all 36-foot wingspan and very benevolent. Her tail undulated over the cello and bass sections while the orchestra, which sounded fantastic, played the final notes.
The crowd roared its delight and gave a standing ovation.
The show will be repeated tonight.