Hindsight is a powerful thing, especially when passing judgment on those who bumble through life blissfully unprepared for its hardships. Such is the lesson inherent in the well-known fable of The Ant and the Grasshopper, in which a poor Grasshopper suffers for its lack of preparation for winter – and this lesson is all too easily applied to a society still suffering from an economic slump.
The Ant and the Grasshopper, in a Russian language version by Brian Hosefros (libretto by Vadim Yurchenko) at the Tête à Tête opera festival, points the finger at the sort of carefree spending that can get you in a financial bind. Unlike the original tale, however, the Ant is neither smug nor cruelly condemning of the Grasshopper, but the fable is updated to place blame squarely on the financial institutions who lead such vulnerable Grasshoppers into ruin.
It's hard to avoid being didactic in an adaptation of a fable whose very nature is to teach us a lesson, but this production suffers from taking this lesson a bit too seriously when more playfulness and a sense of humour could have strengthened it. Too many scenes of abject woe and misery, such as when the Grasshopper's apartment is finally repossessed by the cruel banker, make the action drag – and too little joy during the Grasshopper's carefree springtime means the piece doesn't bounce as much as it should.
Hosefros' score doesn't help with this over-seriousness: there was great scope for musical boisterousness when Grasshopper and her fickle friends cavort about in bars and clubs, but, strangely, the score remained abstract and rather sinister, punctuated by pizzicato and a haunting flute. One could argue that this foreshadows the trouble ahead, but by leaving out the playful melodies that the story demands, the Grasshopper's ultimate downfall lacks contrast.
Vocally, the cast put in strong performances. Sheridan Edward makes an excellent Muravej (the Ant), though he is much kinder and more benevolent than the miserly Ant of the original fable. In this version, he is apparently in love with the Grasshopper, though for some reason, they never have a scene together, and this romance remains unresolved. Madeleine Holmes plays his love interest Strekoza (the Grasshopper), and she sings with the enthusiastic abandonment of a woman who refuses to think too seriously about life. Her friends, played by Alistair Sutherland and Christina Gill, are vocally strong, but seemed somewhat listless on stage; their movements were not quite bold or sharp enough. More physical movement and tension would certainly have made the piece more engaging, livening up a rather bare stage.
Chloe Hinton plays the banker, who presides ominously over the entire piece – clipboard in hand and greedy eyes flitting back and forth between the Ant and the Grasshopper's apartments. Profit is to be made here, and she ultimately deceives them both into their downfall: Grasshopper is allowed to buy a posh apartment on credit, which is then repossessed and resold to an unknowing Ant. When the Ant learns that he has moved into poor Grasshopper's place, the piece ends in a melodramatic split-scene showing each dreadfully unhappy.
The material of this Russian fable is rich, and although this adaptation updates it to 20th century concerns, the didacticism is simply transferred to a rather simplistic condemnation of profit-hungry bankers. While the leads in this piece are strong, it still feels as though an opportunity for lively humour was missed.