Performing musical works in a theatrical setting—adding staging and other media, making a concert piece into a theater piece—is one of the more interesting ideas that’s popped up in the classical-music world in recent years. To name only two examples, Bach cantatas (directed by provocateur Peter Sellars) and Shostakovich’s Quartet no. 15 (the Emerson String Quartet meets video projections) have been thus transformed. The inter-artistic alchemy can shed fascinating new light on the music, or at the very least introduce it to theatergoers who might not otherwise encounter it.
ArtsWest’s current production of The Little Match Girl Passion is yet another intriguing, and thoroughly successful, example. Composer David Lang’s adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale was premiered in 2007 and earned him a Pulitzer Prize. He scored it for four-part choir—though, as it is here, it can be sung by four solo voices: John Coons, Lisa Mandelkorn, Jenny Shotwell, and Randy Scholz—and touches of percussion, which these singers play as they sing: crotales, orchestra bells, sleigh bells, a floor tom, a brake drum. Lang’s choice of title overtly links the Passion of Jesus, his final suffering and death, to Andersen’s heart-wrencher about a neglected match-seller and her parallel fate.
What ArtsWest’s production does with this vocal piece—which, I’m guessing, was devised and developed by the performers, since no director is listed in the program—is to add two dancers, Megan Sandico and choreographer Ulyber Mangune. Their work harmonizes tellingly with Lang’s music and with the production as a whole—bare-bones, as befits a tale of the ravages of poverty, with just music stands, the percussion, and one prop, a bolt of red cloth; it’s all performed on the existing set for ArtsWest’s Peter and the Starcatcher, running concurrently. Periods of bodily motionlessness echo the silences in Lang’s ascetic, pared-down score; his repetitions of simple material (rising and falling scales, long-held tones, or giving all singers the same rhythms, as in hymns) ingeniously make a great deal out of a little; and together it all enhances the story’s poignance.
Lang’s piece is only about a half-hour long; to make an evening of it, ArtsWest prefaces it with a half-hour reading of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” It’s a rather cunning juxtaposition; follow the warm and cuddly favorite, read avuncularly by Paul Shapiro, with the bleakness of Lang & Andersen. It makes a hard-hitting counterpart to the season’s usual Nutcrackers and Christmas Carols. ArtsWest, 4711 California Ave. S.W., artswest.org. $30. 7:30 p.m. Mon., Dec. 19, 10:30 p.m. Thurs., Dec. 22.