I can honestly say that I will never forget Spoleto’s Little Match Girl, and while I thoroughly enjoyed Helmut Lachenmann’s score and the performance by the show’s two singers and the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, the shadow puppet-aspect nearly snuffed out any fire the already cold production had left in it. 

I wasn’t alone of course. Our very own Dustin Waters had a similarly dim view of the shadow puppet perforce. But what of other writers?

The Post and Courier‘s Jonathan Neufeld loved it, although it seems that a good deal of his appreciation for the production was the result of an earlier chat by Lachenmann. Neufeld writes:

Helmut Lachenmann’s “The Little Match Girl,” performed for the first time in the United States at the Spoleto Festival, presents the familiar story as a series of feelings and images in sound. Under Mark Down’s and Phelim McDermott’s co-direction, the core of the libretto is made more explicit by the projected words and images of shadow puppetry. With the addition of two texts, one from 1970s German radical Gudrun Ensslin and the other from Leonardo da Vinci, Lachenmann throws the social injustice at the heart Hans Christian Andersen’s story into sharp relief…

Lachenmann’s avoidance of melody and tonal structure has made a detractor describe his music as musica negative — music drawn from the negative space around tones, music that refuses to be music. While this isn’t a completely unfair description (and I suspect at least some of the 26 or so people who left in the middle of the performance might have something even more negative to say), it does fail to capture the richness of the sound, feeling and gesture of this immersive music. To listen to Lachenmann’s work is to see and hear the gestures of sounding bodies…

Lachenmann’s music is not easy to listen to. But why should listening to a story of a poor hungry girl freezing to death on the street be easy?

(Note: If you are having trouble with the P&C’s paywall, click here to learn how to get around all that BS.)

The Wall Street Journal’s Heidi Waleson wasn’t as enthusiastic, writing:

Helmut Lachenmann’s “The Little Match Girl” was the real period piece of the three—circa Darmstadt, the experimental music mecca, in the 1970s— with its large orchestra, chorus and two soprano soloists, led by John Kennedy, who made noises for an hour and 45 minutes. Alternately chilly and assaultive, it purported to create the atmosphere of Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairy tale, overlaid with political commentary regarding outsiders, the poor, and the responsibility of “the system.” It was mostly tedious. Co-directors Mark Down and Phelim McDermott devised an ingenious shadow-puppetry production, including cutouts of text fragments, which supplied some orientation and diversion, if not much illumination.

James R. Oestreich of The New York Times was decidedly in the love-it camp.

The production, directed by Mark Down and Phelim McDermott, is performed mostly in darkness, using shadow puppets. The text appears as titles among and around the shadowy representations — mere suggestions, actually — of people and settings. The only actual character, oddly, is Leonardo da Vinci, reading from his “Codex Arundel”; Adam Klein plays him, and also reads texts by Gudrun Ensslin.

John Kennedy, with much of the music happening behind him in a surround configuration, conducted the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and the Westminster Choir in a logistical tour de force. The sopranos Heather Buck and Yuko Kakuta were similarly adept in their vocal gymnastics, producing all manner of grunts, clicks and pops. Stephen Drury and Renate Rohlfing were the pianists.

Appropriately, and probably just as Mr. Lachenmann hoped, this is music hard to warm to, but there is no question that he achieved his effects. And a couple of dozen deserters aside, the crowd seemed to love it.

For the record Oestreich’s statement that the crowd seemed to adore the show is something of a head-scratcher. I was there on opening night, and the crowd, aside from a handful of standing-O-vers, made a speedy exit. This is significant for the simple fact that Spoleto audiences are famously generous for giving standing Os for almost any work; to have an occasion where less than half, if not more, of the audience either stayed in their seats or got up to leave is telling. Then again, perhaps we were at different shows or perhaps I was so disoriented by the entire proceedings that I was knocked out of my senses until I was outside of the theater.

Susan Gailbreath of DC Theatre Scene was similarly enchanted but did offer a few useful critiques:

Spoleto is known for bringing not just the best from around the world. To retain its preeminence, the festival must bring the most daring and thus challenge our preconceptions about music, dance, theatre and opera advancing those forms. Haven’t most of us heard the story of the angry riot that ensued the first time Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” played in Paris?

Many of us are afraid of what we can’t understand. Art can make us look at and confront this phenomenon. Great art can move us forward.

Lachenmann’s work indeed challenges, but I found it most remarkable if not always likeable. One of its most brilliant aspects was in his choice of material. The Little Match Girl is an uncomplicated but powerful story. Most of us carry some sense of the work from our childhood, flickering images as if, like what was staged before us, lit by a match. The audience co-participates in imbuing the sounds and images with meaning. We feel the cold, get lost in the darkness, huddle there in a sense of aloneness, and drift as the little girl does from a kind of hyper-vigilance into semi-consciousness as the sounds continue to swirl around us…

There are a couple of elements that have not yet come together. James F. Ingalls is one of the most talented lighting designers working on the world stages. He has managed a remarkable feat in reducing his forces and creating a clean, “primitive” use of pinpricks of light visually to match the composer’s minimalist style. However, the cans that needed to shoot through from upstage to light the words on placards that were yanked on and off stage were not timed sufficiently well. Sometimes the signs became blurry, at others the lights grievously flooded into the audience’s eyes and reminded me of the excesses of early Peter Sellars’ productions.

The second aspect I found disconcerting is that the placement of the musicians above us meant their music stand lights spilled out destroying the magic that total darkness for the screened visuals would have made.

Overall, however, this was a most important work to bring to Spoleto, and it will continue to bring up its images to my mind.