Determined to bring ambition back to its stage, the Mann Center Wednesday night conjured a bracing beauty. Dubbed “Firebird: Reimagined,” the multi-media work is a big artistic statement sourced in an unlikely marriage of aesthetics: Stravinsky’s luminous score to the 1910 ballet, contemporary dance movements, a busy bestiary of large puppets, an enormous egg lit with animation, and a story that moves the modern South Africa struggle to the realm of the Russian folk tale.
Strangely, if precariously, it worked. There was an orchestra on stage, too, and at one time at the Mann, this would have been enough. The Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Cristian Măcelaru were sometimes relegated to a supporting role, but they still asserted themselves through some highly individualized turns of personality.
It was a wonderful thing to feel risk in the air once again at the Mann - the essential element of art. And if the production errs, it does so by flirting with over-stimulation. There is a bigness to nearly everything going on - Janni Younge’s puppets, the energetic splash of Michael Clark’s animation, and, of course, the music (which includes a modest amount of newly composed material by Daniel Eppel).
And yet much of the beauty lies in the principles of subtlety. Younge’s creations may look like escapees from the Museum of Natural History, but they move with great sophistication. The puppets of children seem wrought from pure emotion, and the interactions between them and their dancer-operators are particularly arresting (Jay Pather was choreographer). These details are sometimes elusive, as is the story of a young seeker whose journey is meant to mirror the way South Africa wrestles with promise unfulfilled since the fall of apartheid. A lot competes for the listener-viewer’s attention, and you had the feeling that the best way to have caught it all would have been in movie form with the help of a half dozen cameras and a director’s wise eye.
It’s well worth pausing on the fact that the creative impulse for the project started with IMG Artists. Artists’ agents - particularly big ones - are rarely seen as benevolent instigators. This Mann performance was the world premiere of the live-orchestra version of the piece, and now it moves on to summer venues in other U.S. cities. Only Philadelphia, however, added the appearance of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the richly layered South African nine-member male a capella group that had the first half of the program. In addition to their standards, they took two Russian folk tunes Stravinsky used in The Firebird and, in transcriptions by Mann festival artistic director Nolan Williams, Jr., rendered them with a South African aesthetic.
Cultural crossover multiplied when classical baritone Andrew Lawson and pop singer Zeek joined in. Williams’ artistic view of the world is - to paraphrase from an especially rough few weeks in this country - that there’s more that unites us than divides us. This Firebird experience drew a crowd of nearly 4,400 to the Mann – many of them biking or walking from the immediate neighborhood – and judging from the vibe on this night, it would have been hard to find anyone who didn’t think cultural assimilation was anything less than one of the great privileges of being human.