Basil Twist, nine puppeteers, and twin Russian-born pianists, Irina and Julia Elkina, presented an enthralling Petrushka at the Paramount Theater on Nov. 11. (The show continues through Nov. 21.) Co-sponsored by ArtsEmerson and the Celebrity Series of Boston, this ingenious production, commissioned in 2001, was the brainchild of Twist, a third-generation award-winning puppeteer. He was inspired by the famed 1911 Ballet Russe production created by Michel Folkine and danced by Vaslav Nijinsky.
The pianists, who have played together since the age of five (we never do find out their ages), based their two-piano arrangement of Petrushka on Stravinsky’s four-hand version from 1947 and Grigoriy Korchmar’s handwritten arrangement for three movements. (The program lists the pianist/composer’s last name incorrectly as “Krochmar.” For those unfamiliar with Korchmar, he was born in Baltiysk in 1947. Although little-known outside his native Russia, he is a prominent figure in the musical life of St. Petersburg. A piece of his was played at a faculty recital at Longy last spring.
The two grand pianos were on opposite sides of a ten-foot-square frame which acted as both an unexpected screen and the location for this magical Petrushka. As the performance is a mere thirty-five minutes long, the evening began with an apt opener, Stravinsky’s lovely three-movement Sonata for Two Pianos, with an abstract “fantasia of puppetry.” I have heard this piece played far more dramatically by Roberto Poli and Sergey Schepkin at Jordan Hall in 2002; However, it was hard to get a good sense of the balance as critics were assigned seats at the sides and near-back of the hall. The surprising element was the appearance inside the darkened frame of seemingly free-floating geometrical images that danced around, reshaping themselves one color at a time — yellow, turquoise, red, purple, blue. It was quite mystifying until the performance segued into “Petrushka,” and we realized the puppeteers in black velvet moving the puppets had been behind the moving of the shapes. It served as a enchanting prelude.
The two Elkinas switched pianos for Petrushka: Suite for Two Pianos. It worked well and was well played. However, I actually prefer the virtuosic one-piano version to the sister’s new arrangement and still love the orchestral version with its myriad colors best of all. From the moment the scene opened at the Shrove-Tide Fair, the audience was spell-bound. The three puppets — the Moor, the Ballerina and Petrushka — are magical. They (especially Petrushka) actually convince us that they are living creatures with all the emotions and passions of humans. Each of the three puppets/marionettes is controlled by three people, and their range of motion is astonishing. Petrushka, who falls in love with the Ballerina, flies and flits about, doubles over, is pursued by a huge bear claw and fangs, is killed by the Moor, then comes back to life in, of all places, the audience’s left side. Petrushka’s spirit, however tragic, is unstoppable; we know to love him from the moment he appears.
The four-foot-high Ballerina, however, often steals the show. As bone-thin and leggy as many ballerinas wish they could be, the Ballerina seems, physically, very close to human. There would seem nothing — except to love Petrushka — that she can’t do. The puppetry here is absolutely astonishing; I have never seen anything approaching it, even in puppet-loving Prague.
Both Czech and Japanese puppetry influence this production. Bunraku, probably less well known to Western audiences, has a thousand-year-old Japanese heritage that has evolved over the years; the puppets, around three-and-a-half feet tall, now seem more real. Originally operated by one person, they now are cleverly designed to be operated by three puppeteers, visible although shrouded in black.
Twist worked closely with the two pianists and was guided, he writes, by Stravinsky’s music. “It inspired… every fantastic image in my head, and now on stage. In many cases my understanding of the music has led to different characterizations and narrative action than the original production.” I loved this production, but hearing “Petrushka” in its many piano versions always feels to me like hearing it in black and white, so to speak. The color here came from the three puppets, the light show, and the Twist trademark wavy curtains. As said, the performance was fifty-five minutes long; I could have watched Basil Twist’s puppets all night.