Review: Esa-Pekka Salonen and Peter Sellars create Stravinsky myths for our time

Cambodian dancers Nam Narim, left, Sam Sathya and Chumvan Sodhachivy perform in Peter Sellars' production of Stravinsky's "Persèphone," with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
Music Critic

In times of trouble, when the world seems headed toward disaster, we often turn to mythology to find our moral footing. At the same time, “myth” remains our term for untruths. Welcome to our world.

What would “Star Wars” or “Game of Thrones” be if not laden with ancient mythology? Is it just coincidence that “Hadestown,” updated Greek mythology, is the latest Broadway sensation or that Los Angeles Opera not only will premiere Matthew Aucoin’s “Eurydice” next season but thinks the Orpheus myth is relevant enough to mount a county-wide festival around it?

Given that myths bring us together, and myths as false news tear us apart, we obviously need to get them right.


That’s clearly the mission of Peter Sellars’ production of Stravinsky’s peculiar concoction of dance, song and spoken drama, “Persèphone,” unveiled Thursday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall as the closing of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s two-week Los Angeles Philharmonic Stravinsky series. The program, which runs through Saturday night, begins with the ballet score “Orpheus.”

Both stories concern Hades, the underworld. Orpheus, the musician, goes in search of his love, Eurydice. Persephone (or Persèphone in French), the daughter of Demeter, goddess of bounteous harvest, of Earth’s fertility, is drawn to the underworld to serve its suffering souls and becomes wife of Hades.

OPERA: Want the best in West Coast talent? You have to go to Europe »

Stravinsky’s “Persèphone” is myth with many angles. The goddess’ ultimate duty is torn between loyalty to her underground ministering and the world above ground where she returns annually. She brings spring and leaves us winter, a symbol that we can’t have one without the other. She retained the power in 1933 Paris, where Europe was seeding war clouds, to bring three unlikely collaborators together, just as she does for today’s globally warmed world.

The catalyst for the collaboration was the Jewish Russian dancer, actress and famed beauty Ida Rubinstein, who commissioned the score for her dance company. Stravinsky, on the other hand, was a white Russian anti-Soviet who was not yet showing any particular aversion to the rise of Nazism in Germany or Fascism in Italy, as were many other European artists. André Gide, the French Marxist writer, contributed the text.

The result, after much haggling, became a short (slightly less than an hour) music theater piece for singer (a tenor narrator, Eumolpe), an actress narrator, dancers and orchestra. By the end, it seems no one was entirely happy. Gidé’s poetry is evocative more than narrative, his Persèphone providing rebirth through a kind of ethereal social activism. Stravinsky wrote one of his most delicately perfumed major orchestral scores, but for him words — and dance even more — served music, not the other way around.


As the world situation worsened, this precious concoction came to be seen as an increasingly unrealistic myth, and very soon fell out of fashion, where it has pretty much remained ever since. The work has had its champions. Stravinsky recorded it twice with the actress Vera Zorina. Her ex-husband George Balanchine made a wretched ballet out of the work. Michael Tilson Thomas made a lovely recording, and now Salonen has a superb new one with his London orchestra, the Philharmonia.

But it was a Sellars 2012 production in Madrid pairing “Persèphone” with Tchaikovsky’s last and also neglected opera, “Iolanta,” that finally brought a new light to Stravinsky’s score. The double bill showed Tchaikovsky as an unappreciated Symbolist composer and Stravinsky as the benefactor of that Russian tradition. For dance, Sellars used a four-member Cambodian troupe, bringing their own deliciously sensual ancient traditions of movement and expression that added exactly the ageless qualities the piece had long lacked onstage.

In Disney, Sellars had to do without George Tsypin’s set, which requires an opera house stage. Nor did he have the luxury for an L.A. Phil subscription concert of a chorus and actress with whom he could spend weeks rehearsing. But he had the same four dancers and tenor. The Los Angeles Master Chorale sat on an elevated stage behind the orchestra, where they were joined near the end by the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus seated on the stage floor and where the dancers and tenor Paul Groves also performed. Cécilia Tsan spoke her narration in front of the musicians. Helene Siebrits’ original costumes and James F. Ingalls’ elaborate original lighting were necessarily simplified for the situation but still effective.

MERCE: For Cunningham’s 100th birthday, an exceptional ‘Night of 100 Solos’ »

It could be argued that these compromises, which wound up making the orchestra prominent, would have pleased Stravinsky. Fred Vogler’s effectively robust amplification of Tsan’s reading made her prominent but never overpowering the score behind, the best of both worlds.

In fact, “Persèphone” could now be heard as the best of many worlds, here, the use of myth as a true meeting of disparate minds and thus speaking to a modern audience for whom such a situation has come to seem so elusive. For Salonen, delicacy is attention to detail, and he unearthed that in the kind of fecund profusion (the wind playing proved particularly captivating) but also with staunch rhythmic support.


This is a score that subtly balances silence and sound, stillness and movement, and for Salonen that was the natural movement of the Earth. Tsan, who is better known as a cellist, read with restraint but dramatic involvement. Groves offered a dynamic commentary. Sellars in the projected titles spelled out much of what Gide implied, that the only solution to anything is compassion.

“Orpheus,” written for Balanchine in 1947, is Stravinsky on the other side of the war. A few phrases from “Persèphone” find their way in, but myth now is something more abstract. The composer has become Persephone, himself having emerged into the spring of West Hollywood after the hell of a world war. But he’s too wounded to gloat.

Despite its indication of action, Stravinsky finds small pleasure elsewhere, in small a chord or a violin and harp duet. Salonen let it be, judicious in judging instrumental intricacies, getting everything right in a beautiful performance and proving that this is far better music standing alone than with dance. Stravinsky had had enough drama in his life for a while.


L.A. Phil ‘Persèphone’

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $55-$194

Information: (213) 850-2000 or