Broad Street Review
The wolf, defanged
By Dan Rottenberg
Broad Street Review
April 21, 2015
Peter and the Wolf has been stamped on so many impressionable minds from such a young age for so many years that you could be forgiven for assuming it's part of the standard classical repertoire, right up there with Beethoven's Fifth, Bach's Art of the Fugue, and Mozart's Magic Flute. In fact Prokofiev dashed off both the music and text for this charming 25-minute confection in about two weeks in 1936 at the request of the Moscow Theatre for Children, which means a few people may still be walking the Earth who survived childhood without it.
The appeal of Peter and the Wolf lies in its ability to educate small children without their realizing it. The kids think they're hearing the story of a boy who ventures beyond his grandfather's yard in company with a bird, cat and duck, only to be threatened by a wolf and rescued by two hunters. But in the process they're introduced to the orchestral instruments as well as the concept of musical motifs, and so effectively that more than 60 years after I first heard it, I still can't shake those damned themes out of my head.
In it's earliest iterations, Peter and the Wolf as performed simply by an orchestra and an avuncular narrator, usually equipped with a basso profundo voice and a famous name. (The role has been assumed over the past 80 years by the likes of Basil Rathbone, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov, Sean Connery, George raft, Mia Farrow, Tom Seaver, William F. Buckley Jr., David Bowie, and Bill Clinton, to name just a few.)
But Saturday's Philadelphia Orchestra children's performance, the narrator was a high-pitched bundle of frenetic energy named Michael Boudewyns, who unveiled an elaborate array of props in an effort to offer the audience something for the eye as well as the ear without sacrificing the symbolism. Thus Peter was represented not only by the strings but also a cap; the bird by a green feather in addition to the flute; the cat by a black handbag as well as the clarinet; the wolf by the French horns as well as a tail sticking out of a suitcase (which opened now and then to reveal a few large jagged teeth).
Presumably to placate modern-day politically correct sensibilities, the bloodthirsty wolf was largely defanged. To be sure, the wolf did eat the duck, but in the original version the listener is told at the conclusion: "If you listen very carefully, you'll hear the duck quacking inside the wolf's belly, because the wolf in his hurry had swallowed her alive." Saturday's Boudewyns version took this reassurance a step further: The unfortunate but also undigested mallard was burped up intact at the finale, after Peter had lassoed the wolf with his lariat and dragged the creature off to the zoo, there presumably to live out his days as a vegetarian. Did I mention that the hunters were represented not by shotguns but by a toilet plunger?
Boudewyns has performed this version of Peter 82 times since he and his prop-designer wife sara Valentine concocted it ten years ago. The whole thing works surprisingly well, to judge from the intense interest of my five- and seven-year old grandchildren, whose attention (unlike mine) never wavered. This was the same granddaughter who took a year or two to come to grips with the death of the Mouse King in The Nutcracker - click here.) But of course! My grandkids were experiencing Peter for the first time, a pleasure I will never again know,
Can they distinguish among the instruments in an orchestra? Hard to say at this early stage, but I think they're off to a good start, which is surely what Prokofiev had in mind.