Dutoit, Boston Symphony provide an operatic feast of Ravel and Stravinsky

October 26, 2012
By Aaron Keebaugh

Soprano Olga Peretyatko and conductor Charles Dutoit following the BSO performance of Stravinsky's "The Nightingale" Thursday night at Symphony Hall. Photo: Stu Rosner

It’s a given that opera is both a visual and aural spectacle, though sometimes the music lives to take on a life of its own beyond its intended genre. Such was the case with Stravinsky’s Le rossignol (The Nightingale) and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges presented by conductor Charles Dutoit and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in concert performances Thursday night at Symphony Hall.

That’s not to say that either work has failed to reach the public in their staged forms. This past spring, The Nightingale was staged in Amsterdam, in the original French version, and last year, Robert Lepage’s production for the Canadian Opera Company called for the singers to convey the drama through water and shadow puppetry.

At first glance, the program may seem a little strange. But a bill of two fifty-minute operas is a refreshing alternative to the standard overture-concerto-symphony of concert programming, entrenched as though those genres may be. Though not necessarily a feast for the eyes, the BSO performance was certainly a feast for the ears.

Charles Dutoit took to the podium to command the large orchestra, a cast of rising international stars, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The full ensemble, chorus, and soloists—several of whom were making their BSO debuts—squeezed onstage made for a sight in itself. But together, the musicians did a brilliant job in bringing these understated works to life. The biggest surprise, perhaps, was that Symphony Hall was only half full for a conductor and performers of such magnitude.

Stravinsky’s Nightingale, completed in 1913, is taken from a story by Hans Christian Andersen. Set in ancient China, the tale is a romantic parable about the healing and redemptive power of music.

Stravinsky’s score contains many passages that are reminiscent of Debussy’s symphonic scores, particularly Nuages. The music for the opening scene, for example, comprises soft undulating chords, which depict, in impressionistic fashion, flowing water. The music also bears (now stereotypical) Stravinskian hallmarks—it groans, whistles, shouts, and churns in a polytonal style similar to passages in Rite of Spring and Petrushka. The Chinese march, complete with “orientalisms” of crotales, pizzicato strings, and pentatonic melodies, and the machine-like music for the mechanical Nightingale—brought to the Emperor in the story by a Japanese envoy as an alternative to the real bird—stand out as prime examples of descriptive orchestral writing.

In general, The Nightingale doesn’t contain memorable melodies. Instead, orchestral timbre and technique seem to drive the piece. The score brims with exposed parts for the winds and brass players but the BSO the musicians didn’t miss a note or a beat Thursday night. Dutoit demonstrated a masterly hand in conducting and interpreting the score.

Russian soprano Olga Peretyatko, in her BSO debut, performed exquisitely as the Nightingale, who is sought by the Emperor’s court for her magical singing. Peretyatko—who won acclaim for the same role in the Lepage production—has an agile, lyrical voice tailor-made for the part, and she effortlessly executed the composer’s vocal lines, which seem to hover continuously in the upper range.

In his BSO debut, Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas was equally powerful in the role of the Fisherman, a recurring character who muses about the fantastical singing of the Nightingale. David Wilson-Johnson’s baritone voice boomed in the role as the Emperor. Swiss mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef, with her silvery voice, conveyed the specter of death, introduced in the third scene to rob the Emperor of his final breath as he lays dying (by opera’s end, the Nightingale returns to save him).

Following intermission, Dutoit and ensemble tackled Ravel’s colorful lyric fantasy, L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells). A cautionary tale by the French writer Collette, L’Enfant tells of a young child who, in a temper tantrum, destroys his tea sets, books, and play things after his mother scolds him. One by one, his possessions as well as the animals he has persecuted over the years come to life to confront him about his deplorable behavior.

Like Stravinsky, Ravel uses an orchestral palette filled with unusual and sometimes raucous sounds—double bass paired with soprano voice, wind machine, and the double bassoon pepper the score. But L’Enfant abounds with melodies ranging from virtuosic vocalises for the nightingale to vaudeville-like numbers, complete with Viennese waltzes and superbly orchestrated gimmicks that resemble “shave and a haircut” or “wah-wah-wah” phrases. One of the more memorable musical scenes is a nocturne in the final third of the opera, where the child finds himself outside in the garden under the moonlight. Here Ravel, through slide whistles, flute calls, and wind machine over static strings in octaves, transforms a place that was once familiar to the child into a serene space of exotic wonder.

The musical effects extend to the voices, which, at several points in the opera, comprise little more than humorous onomatopoeia for lyrical content. The garden scene, for example, features the chorus, in passages worthy of Parisian chanson, chirping and croaking to depict an ensemble of insects, frogs, and toads, all of which the Tanglewood Festival Chorus executed to fine effect.

With her rich, dark voice, French-Canadian mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne, also making her BSO debut, seemed a perfect fit for the child. The role, in fact, is not new to her repertoire; she sang the part on the 2009 Grammy Award winning recording of L’Enfant for Naxos.

Sandrine Piau was well-suited to the roles of the Bat and Screech-owl in Ravel’s work. But she was especially poignant in the role of the Princess, where her light mezzo voice blended sweetly with a solo flute accompaniment. Peretyatko performed the lilting passages in her role as the Fire and (again) as the Nightingale.

The duet between the white and black cats feature mezzo-soprano Diana Axentii and David Wilson-Johnson trading sprechstimme-like “meows.” It was also surprising to hear the versatile Wilson-Johnson in the role of the broken clock, where his energetic singing of “ding, ding, ding” were a far cry from his commanding tone as the Emperor in The Nightingale earlier that evening.

From the center of the hall, the loud, bursting chords from the orchestra overpowered the chorus on a few occasions. And tenor Jean-Paul Fouchecourt had some trouble competing with the orchestra, which completely drowned him out at the end of his aria in the role of the comedic Mathematics Man, who appears in the story to taunt the child with math problems.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. bso.org

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