Christmas fiction in children’s operetta The Little Match Girl 17, 23 December 2016; 8 January 2017

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Children’s operetta The Little Match Girl has been devised as the opening of The Music of Our Time trilogy to include also Ali Baba (based on The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights) and The Ice Queen (based on Andersen’s The Snow Queen)[1].

Librettist of The Little Match Girl is actor Venelin Metodiev. The libretto follows the storyline of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale [2], but the action is set in a Christmas night, including new characters such as the Organ Grinder, the White Chimney Sweep and the Grandmother for the story to take on a ‘wonder’ dimension.

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The Organ Grinder introduces the developments to the spectators as early as the first melodious number, assuming the role of a narrator[3]. He gradually befriends the Little Match Girl, protecting her against the Bad Cop and being imprisoned in her stead. The duet of the Little Match Girl and the Organ Grinder is underpinned by the fact that they are ‘singing to keep themselves warm’. Still, the Bad Cop decides to detain them for ‘disorderly conduct’. When he takes the Organ Grinder, the lonely girl sings her first aria giving it a clear lyrical line. It is at this point that the

White Chimney Sweep appears, a mysterious and memorable character in the vein of the White Rabbit (Alice In Wonderland). He inspires hope in the Little Match Girl. He also sings an aria reminiscent of that of a lead male character of the Second Viennese School. The trio between the Little Match Girl, the White Chimney Sweep and the Organ Grinder is built as a conversation between her and the two male characters, with the middle part in swing like a scene from a Broadway show.

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In the stage version, unlike the original story, the girl has several visions of her Grandmother. In the finale, her Grandmother guides the Little Match Girl up into a better place, much prettier and warmer. The operetta shows death as enlightenment.

Though meant to represent the realistic line in the story, the invented characters of the Grande Dame and the Bad Cop would whip up rather negative emotions as they destroy the girl’s matchbox, causing indirectly her death.

The Cop is a funny character presented as a fool[4]. He appears almost always together with the Grande Dame. In her aria, the latter bursts into cascades of coloratura typical of someone putting on artificial airs. The Grande Dame is reminiscent one way or another of the Queen of The Night (Mozart’s The Magic Flute).

The libretto features also the visions, which the girl has: a fairy-tale Christmas tree pops up during one of her Grandmother’s appearances, while a giant roast turkey is served among a range of Christmas meals for the Grande Dame and the Bad Cop living by the motto ‘let’s have a good square meal’.

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Rumen Boiadjiev Jr’s music[5] is beautiful. The composer’s approach is a rare occurrence in Bulgarian pieces for children. Bulgarian authors would more often than not opt for themes (mostly in 2/4), which are suitable for children, easy to remember and sing after leaving the theatre. Rumen Boiadjiev Jr takes approaches and thematic invention typical of film music to translate these into the genre of operetta.[6]

The Little Match Girl’s is Hollywood-style music. The goodies: the Little Match Girl, the Grandmother, the White Chimney Sweep and the Organ Grinder are built in such thematic imagery with clearly highlights melodious lines, accompanied by intricate chord complexes. With a symphony orchestra with a double woodwind section, the orchestration provides an enormous range of timbres. All the sections of the orchestra are performing to the full with the harp and various percussions rendering a special aroma to the overall sound.

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The Grande Dame and the Bad Cop are also represented in the vein of the overseas film music. What differs them from the goodies is the lack of the richness of harmony typical of the rest of the characters and their musical characteristics are not that richly orchestrated either.

Children’s operetta The Little Match Girl initially had a concert version premiered on 12 December 2012 at Bulgaria Hall with the participation of soloists from the Musical Theatre, Zvunche vocal group from 144 Narodni Buditeli Comprehensive School accompanied by the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra. A couple of years later, in December 2014 it was staged at Stefan Makedonski National Musical Theatre with the cast including most of the performers in the concert version.

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Staging: roles and performers

The production crew[7] distributed the roles in The Little Match Girl between a principal cast, whose members are playing almost all the solo parts in the Musical Theatre’s repertoire, and understudies.

Brilliant Dobrina Ikonomova, participating in the central lyrical soprano repertoire[8], plays the role of the Little Match Girl. An accomplished actress like her renders her performance both childlike innocence and kindness and stability of the play and the vocal tasks, which are rather tricky too.

I’d rather choose the understudy Anna Vutova, a very young actress, over Dobrina Ikonomova as the Little Match Girl for her natural youth and innocence combined with perfect vocal and performing skills.

Alexander Mutafchiiski is a principal performer of stock characters, who has received twice the Crystal Lyre award of the Union of Bulgarian Musicians and Dancers. The Organ Grinder is unlike the characters he is being typecast as, but he performs brilliantly both vocally and dramatically.

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Denko Prodanov is the understudy playing the Organ Grinder. Though I failed to see him in this production, I have seen him as Koloman Zsupán in Gräfin Mariza/Countess Maritza, shared by the two soloists. Alexander Mutafchiiski fits perfectly into this baritone part, while Prodanov definitely has vocal difficulties, particularly on low notes. But then again, in spoken dialogues he is Mutafchiiski’s peer. Supposedly, he is the same with The Little Match Girl.

The Grande Dame is played by Katerina Tuparova, known both as a lyrical and soubrette actress. She sang the vocalises in her aria brilliantly. The understudy, Hristina Pipova, though young, is in no way inferior to Tuparova either dramatically or vocally.

The Bad Cop (Ivan Panev) has no special singing tasks. His villainous laughter produces a strong effect and his play is remarkable, particularly so in the episodes with the Grande Dame. Dragomir Stoiov impresses with his manner of speaking. The role does not offer enough vocal qualities to judge the vocal abilities of the performers.

Penio Pirozov is the Musical Theatre’s principal lyrical tenor, who is assigned the role of the White Chimney Sweep. His splendid soft timbre enraptures the audience with each of his vocal performances. The understudy Marcho Apostoov makes a truly aristocratic and fantastically unreal chimney sweep in his white tailcoat and white topper. Besides, he meticulously works out his mise en scène and musical tasks to the last detail.

Ludmila Kozareva, the principal performer in musicals and operettas [9], plays the Little Match Girl’s Grandmother. In my opinion, she makes the best of her otherworldly character fulfilling her artistic and vocal tasks with her entire onstage presence. The understudy Olga Mikhailova-Dinova matches the role as perfectly as the principal performer. I don’t see any difference between the two actresses’ performance for each of them meets the expectations of the producers equally well.

As for the cast, I can’t remember other children’s production of the Musical Theatre starring so many celebrities and I have been frequenting the playhouse ever since my childhood. An actor or actress would begin their careers by playing in children’s shows to then switch to more ‘serious’ roles leaving children’s productions behind. It is a privilege to see a company’s stars engaged in a production for children. It is a commendable endeavour of the Musical Theatre’s management to familiarise the kids with the company’s best performers.

The participation of Pim-pam children’s choir (choirmaster: Irena Hristova) is a breath of fresh air. They sing mostly vocally and the director has seated most of them in the box beside the stage. Some of the kids appear on the stage to play the angles assisting the White Chimney Sweep or accompanying the Grandmother.

Director Deliana Hadjiyankova is an actress, who has made a well-deserved success of her directorial debut at the Musical Theatre. Delving deep into the nature and development of the characters, she creates working mise en scenes fitting both into the musical dramaturgy and the characters.

Conductor Grigor Palikarov, under whose baton the concert version of the operetta was given in 2012, is an experienced musician of long standing. He exposes to the last detail the score’s magnificence to the audience leaving no unvoiced theme, while the sound in the polyphonic moments is so sculptured that feels like being visible and allows all the elements of the score––melody, accompaniment, the overtones created by the pedals, countermelodies, etc.––to be highlighted. The sections of the orchestra sound balanced depending of the textural task they are fulfilling. The brilliant strings impress both with their active pursuit of the themes and their accurate accompaniment in the rest of the episodes. The woodwind and brass sections are literally formidable in the high, soft and uniting in the middle and stable in the bass registers. The percussions and the harp sound with filigreed subtlety.

Evgenia Raeva’s set and costumes and Nikola Nalbantov’s animation add yet another fairy-like dimension to the ambiance. With the low roofs everything feels like earthbound, downtrodden and dead-end. The bench and the lantern just specify the location, while the animation takes the spectator into fantastic scenes over the skyline.

I would recommend the ballet’s more active participation in a future production of the same operetta as for the time being there are few dancing fragments[10]: during the introduction ballet dancers clad in white to feature dancing snowflakes mix up organically with the angels; in the number with the Little Match Girl’s new hat, when she imagines herself to be a Broadway actress and the actress dances on a par with the dancers wearing black garments in contrast to the wintry setting of the operetta.

 

The audiences are enthralled by this production offering a wonderful opportunity for getting in the Christmas mood. I sincerely hope that with the children’s operetta The Little Match Girl a long-established tradition of the Musical Theatre to premiere a Bulgarian work each season will make a comeback, especially as scores of children’s pieces with a contemporary edge or that could be given a modern twist are kept at the Theatre’s archives!

[1] http://bnr.bg/music/post/100779365

[2] Cf. „Малката кибритопродавачка“ – In: Андерсен, Ханс Кристиян. Приказки. София, Труд, 2006, с. 304-306.

[3] The Organ Grinder tells the same story in the opera Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but unlike The Little Match Girl he is not taking part in the opera’s action.

[4] Personally, I deem the Bad Cop to be reminiscent of the Wolf in the musical The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids by Al. Vladigerov.

[5] Born to a family of musicians––his father was a member of the FSB rock band, his mother a music reviewer teaching at the National Academy of Music and NBU––Rumen Boiadjev Jr had a long career until he opted for writing for the stage. He delved both into ‘serious’ classical music and popular genres, composing many songs, chamber pieces, film music, music to theatricals and ballet productions, concertos for bassoon, flugelhorn and piano, bras octet, etc., as well as a Requiem for soloists, mixed choir and symphony orchestra. Major projects; FSB Symphony and BG Rock Symphony.

[6] In a scene with the goodies, Rumen Boiadjiev has included in the score an episode tonally reminiscent of Pancho Vladigerov’s oeuvre, which comes as no surprise given Boiadjiev’s admiration for the great Bulgarian composer. In 2015, Miroslav Danev recorded the Bulgarian National Radio Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Bulgaria tone poem commemorating the greatest Bulgaria’s composer Pancho Vladigerov, composed by Rumen Boiadjiev Jr, conducted by Grigor Palikarov, concertmaster Galina Koicheva: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aKkBTn9GXqA

[7] Director: Deliana Hadjiyankova: conductor: Grigor Palikarov; set/costume designer: Evgenia Raeva; choreographer: Antoaneta Alexieva; animation: Nikola Nalbantov;  Pim-pam choirmaster: Irena Hristova

[8] Dobrina Ikonomova plays Sylva (Die Csardasfurstin/ The Czardas Queen), Annina (Eine Nacht in Venedig/A Night in Venice), Hanna Glavari (Die Lustige Witwe/The Merry Widow), Lila (Bulgarians of Olden Times), etc.

[9] Ludmila Kozareva plays the Narrator (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat);  Eliza Doolittle (My Fair Lady), Prince Orlofsky (Die Fledermaus/The Bat); Maria Magdalena (Jesus Christ Superstar ); Evita (Evita ); Grizabella (Cats), etc.

[10] Choreographed by Antoaneta Aleksieva

Christmas fiction in children’s operetta The Little Match Girl 17, 23 December 2016; 8 January 2017

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