Stravinsky and Mozart make colorful music together in Santa Fe Opera double bill

August 08, 2014
By Charles T. Downey
Erin Morley and Anthony Michaels-Moore in Stravinsky's "Le Rossignol" at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Erin Morley and Anthony Michaels-Moore in Stravinsky’s “Le Rossignol” at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Santa Fe Opera had a special connection to Igor Stravinsky in the last fifteen years of his life. So it was fitting that the company revived the composer’s Le Rossignol this season, especially since Stravinsky himself once conducted it in Santa Fe. The company’s first production of this unusual opera-ballet in over forty years, it also marks the 100th anniversary of the work’s premiere.

The commission came from Sergei Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, for an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s delightful fairy tale The Nightingale. Stravinsky worked out the scenario with his friend Stepan Mitusov in St. Petersburg, streamlining the story of a nightingale sought out by the Emperor of China. The bird enchants the imperial court with its wondrous song, until ambassadors from the Emperor of Japan arrive with the gift of a mechanical nightingale. The real nightingale flies away when her listeners seem more enchanted with her manufactured simulacrum, but she returns to save the Emperor of China on his deathbed, turning away Death itself with her song.

According to scholar Daniel Albright, the true nightingale represents Stravinsky’s early style, and the mechanical one the dry neoclassical Stravinsky to come, meaning that the composer may have intended the work “as a parable about the objectivity of music.” The libretto is bathed in the feel of Oriental nega, “an untranslatable Russian word at once connoting drowsy bliss, creature comfort, and sexual allure,” according to Richard Taruskin. The score has similarities to the operas of Stravinsky’s teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, including the use of coloratura soprano writing for the nightingale, and to Debussy’s Nocturnes, pieces that were “for Stravinsky a textbook of modern writing for strings,” in Taruskin’s words.

Coloratura soprano Erin Morley was outstanding in the title role, with laser-like intonation on the bird’s staccato descending lines and many chromatic detours, even when she was suspended in the air on a sort of flying platform. Soprano Brenda Rae, pulling double-duty because of filling in for an indisposed colleague in Don Pasquale, was equally fine as the cook who leads the court to the nightingale.

Tenor Bruce Sledge was an imposing Fisherman, and Anthony Michaels-Moore a robust Emperor, supported ably by the Bonze of David Govertsen and Chamberlain of Kevin Burdette. The tannin-heavy contralto of Meredith Arwady was almost terrifying as the voice of Death.

Brenda Rae, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Erin Morley in Mozart's The Impresario." Photo: Ken Howard

Brenda Rae, Anthony Michaels-Moore and Erin Morley in Mozart’s “The Impresario.” Photo: Ken Howard

The problem with Le Rossignol is that you have to pair it with something, and director Michael Gieleta was tasked with combining this exotically perfumed Stravinsky with Mozart’s airy soufflé of a Singspiel, The Impresario. He did this by using a new English spoken text by Ranjit Bolt, snappy and full of rather corny jokes at the expense of opera singers and opera managers, and filling it out with some other pieces by Mozart, all in Penny Black’s English translation.

In the Mozart, Morley and Rae had too much fun squabbling, in both music and words, to see who would be prima donna, seconded by Arwady as the scheming mezzo-soprano, with Michaels-Moore and Burdette as the operatic equivalent of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom. There were diva foibles and national stereotypes aplenty, but the singers probably had more fun camping it up than it actually was to watch. (For a more intelligent example, try István Szabó’s 1991 film Meeting Venus, starring Glenn Close.)

Gieleta and his designers (sets by James Macnamara, costumes by Fabio Toblini) did their best to hide the seams between these two bloodily stitched torsos, using Stravinsky’s moody prelude and postlude music to make the transition from the Diaghilev-like, run-down studio to fairy-tale China. As in this year’s Carmen, video projections played a crucial role, this time with animated evocations of abstract art by Miró and Picasso, designed by Andrzej Goulding.

A team of dancers, choreographed by Seán Curran, enlivened the Mozart and gave tribute to the ballet origins of the Stravinsky, in which they were costumed with berets and glasses that recall the photographs taken of Stravinsky when he was at Santa Fe Opera. Pretty dancer Xiaoxiao Wang was memorable as Stravinsky’s mechanical nightingale, costumed in a golden Jetsons outfit, and two male dancers mincing about in tennis outfits with Morley in the Mozart seemed to recall the choreography of Debussy’s Jeux. Conductor Kenneth Montgomery had the Mozart well in hand but seemed glued to the score of Le Rossignol, an insecurity that was transferred to the musicians in the pit at times.

At the very least Santa Fe Opera can now say it has ticked another minor Mozart work off its to-do list. Even so, it would have been better for the company to have paired Le Rossignol with the work it shared a double-bill with in 1914, The Golden Cockerel, by Rimsky-Korsakov, a composer whose operas have yet to be staged at Santa Fe Opera.

The final performances of The Impresario and Le Rossignol will be August 15.

Charles T. Downey is a freelance writer on music and roving summer festival reporter. The rest of the year he lives in Washington, D.C., where he writes reviews for the Washington Post and moderates, a Web site on classical music and the arts.

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