1998 saw the founding of a French media company called naïve (in lowercase). It promoted itself as a “maison d’artistes” (house of artists); and, on its Facebook site, it describes itself as “résolument indépendant” (resolutely independent). One of its first releases on its Naïve classique record label was a concert recording of a complete performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Histoire du soldat” (soldier’s tale), performed in December of 1996 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées as part of a special AIDS benefit concert. Shlomo Mintz served as conductor for this occasion, also playing the solo violin part.
The complete libretto by Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz was read (in French) by three French actors. Narration was provided by Carole Bouquet, probably best known in the United States for the “title role” in Luis Buñuel’s 1977 film That Obscure Object of Desire. The more familiar Gérard Depardieu read the role of the devil, while Joseph, the soldier, was read by Guillaume Depardieu, Gérard’s son. (Both father and son appeared in the film Tous les matins du monde, with the father playing the mature Martin Marais and the son playing him as a young man.)
At the end of this past May, naïve issued a new release of this recording that became emblematic of the company’s mission and reputation. The accompanying booklet includes the complete text of the libretto, but it is only in French. However, the synopsis provided on the Wikipedia page for this work tracks very closely the sections of music. Thus, readers who do not know French should be able to follow the plot from the text as Wikipedia provides it, which includes the concluding moral given in both French and English translation.
The performance itself is particularly appealing. The seven musicians that form the chamber ensemble offer up an interpretation that is both livelier and sharper than what one encounters on many recordings, including those of instrumental excerpts. The three actors read their texts with a strong sense of the irony that serves as foundation for the unfolding of the plot. One may not be able to follow all of the words, but the impact of tone of voice is always unmistakable. That scrupulous attention to acting (even if the actors were reading from printed texts) may well have had a hand in providing a context for the musical interpretation.
The entire recording takes about an hour. This is substantially longer than the suite of eight movements that Stravinsky prepared or the five-movement version he created for just clarinet, violin, and piano. However, there is a tendency to abstract out the narrative when listening to these instrumental versions. Thus, even if one is only listening to a recording, this reissue of the full score and spoken text makes for a far more satisfying overall listening experience.