The Spirit of 1917

"Parade: An Evening of French Music Theatre": Parade

by Erik Satie, choreography by Gray Veredon

Les Mamelles de Tirésias

by Francis Poulenc, libretto by Guillaume Apollinaire

L'Enfant et les Sortilèges

by Maurice Ravel, libretto by Colette, conducted by Manuel Rosenthal, produced by John Dexter, sets and costumes by David Hockney, lighting by Gil Wechsler
at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, February 20-March 13, 1981

On the evening of February 20, 1981, some very odd things happened on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. Stagehands went about their business dressed as Punchinellos out of Domenico Tiepolo, complete with tall, tapering hats and hook-nosed masks. A man fathered babies by the dozen with no help from the opposite sex, and one of them—still in his cradle—wrote a novel that sold six hundred thousand copies. Two king-sized cats parodied the love duet from Act II of Tristan und Isolde. A personified fire jumped out of the fireplace and ran round the room until brought to order by personified ashes. And in the center of the stage, though for a very few seconds, the young Colette—unmistakable for her profile and costume—was seen to be typing at top speed.

These goings-on were not part of an evening of jokes, such as is devised every Christmas at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. They were fundamental to Parade, a triple bill that was by universal consent one of the best and most inventive productions ever to have been staged in that great but often erratic institution, the Metropolitan Opera.

The prognosis for the evening had not been favorable. Triple bills in general empty an opera house almost faster than the discovery of an unexploded bomb, and in this case no one had known quite what the Met was up to. The program consisted of Parade itself—a ballet with which no one hitherto had presumed to tamper—and two short operas: Les Mamelles de Tirésias by Francis Poulenc and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges by Maurice Ravel. Was this a coherent program, people asked, or a cocktail that someone had forgotten to shake?

As for Parade itself—the ballet, not the bill—it seemed to make no sense to keep Erik Satie’s music and drop Picasso’s scenery and costumes, Massine’s choreography, and Cocteau’s scenario. The interaction of those four people had produced a masterpiece. Picasso’s designs are as important to the history of art as they are to the history of the theater. Massine’s fine-boned inventions—for the Chinese Conjurer, above all—have kept their pristine astonishment. In suggesting that everyday movements can become material for the dance, Parade was many years ahead of its time, just as it was ahead of its time in putting together a collage of ideas from classical ballet, from the circus, and from the silent cinema. Satie’s music did not have an independent pre-existence, like the music for L’Après Midi d’un Faune. It was locked into the ballet the way fossils are locked into schist. To try in 1981 to top the achievement of Picasso, Massine, Satie, and Cocteau in 1917 was surely the work of madmen.

Very few people in this country had seen a first-rate performance of Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Poulenc was regarded by most members of the Met public as an amiable lightweight who redeemed himself late in life by writing Dialogues des Carmélites. No matter what may be said about Les Mamelles, it is…

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