Dutoit and BSO: An Exacting, Masterful Performance

Stravinky’s Le Rossignol and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges

Nélida Nassar  11.01.2012

Le Rossignol (The Nightingale) by Igor Stravinsky
Libretto by Stepan Mitusov
after a tale by Hans Christian Andersen
L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells)

by Maurice Ravel
Libretto by Colette

Conducted by Charles Dutoit
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Symphony Hall: October 25, 26, 27, 2012

Cast:
Olga Peretyatko, soprano (the nightingale in Stravinsky),
Julie Boulianne, mezzo-soprano (the child in Ravel),
Sandrine Piau, soprano,
Diana Axentii and Yvonne Nael, mezzo-sopranos,
Edgaras Montvidas and Jean-Paul Fouchecourt, tenors,
David Wilson-Johnson, David Kravitz and Kelly Markgraf, baritones,
Mattew Rose, bass, all singing multiple roles in both operas,
Tanglewood Festival Chorus conducted by John Oliver

Maestro Dutoit conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra this week delighting its audience with two rarely paired forty-five minutes each compositions of Stravinky’s Le Rossignol (The Nightingale) and Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells). The guest conductor restored splendor to Le Rossignol’s lush score. The libretto by Hans Christian Anderson is about a small nightingale whose singing is able to bring the Emperor of China to tears. When the Emperor’s Japanese counterpart offers him a mechanical nightingale, it causes the disappearance of the real one. Stravinsky started from a traditional legend, but between act one, and the following two acts, he composed Petrouchka, The Firebird and The Rite of Spring, with the help of Sergei Diaghilev of les Ballets Russes. When he resumed work on Le Rossignol, he applied his newly evolved style and vocabulary. He would not have been able at the time he composed the first act to produce the startling discrepancy between the first and later acts, or rather the “distance” to the second act’s chinese musical motifs, that Ravel cleverly noted in an article at the time.

Sharpness of different planes, profusion of realistic details – enchanting timbre combinations, decorative arabesques – Dutoit’s baton did justice to a “musical landscape” of polyphonic complexity, alternating warm tuttis and nocturnal, crystalline transparency: the celesta melody sperates from strange glissandos, the horns were incisively “unheimlich” striking the right tonality along with the trumpets and trombones fortissimos. The flutes and oboes’ trilling reminded us of the descent from the clouds in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélissande. Following the quavering by few seconds, a contrapuntal chromaticism is unleashed bordering on atonality. Stravinsky’s here exceeded both Rimsky-Korsakov – he was a student of the author of The Coq d’Or – and Mussorgsky.

The vocal distribution was remarkable. We were treated to tenor Edgaras Montvidas’ ultralyric singing as the fisherman with a hint of Verdian petulance; the sublime voice of soprano Olga Pertyatko who performs the nightingale with coloratura and controlled vibrato; without forgetting of mezzo-soprano Yvonne Naef’s graceful, poised, and flexible sound; and baritone David Wilson-Johnson dark, rich and full timber.

Following the intermission, the Orchestra attacked the first notes of Ravel’s purely expressionistic L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Enchantments), drawn from the novelist Colette’s little drama of childhood crisis and growth – the prototype for Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. The story of a child and some magic spells sounds whimsical: a naughty boy has to confront the inanimate objects (bench, clock, stool, wicker chair, tree, fire, numbers) and animals (bat, owl, cats, squirrel and insects), now come to life, which he has destroyed in his tantrums, before eventually acquiring wisdom via a wounded squirrel. In L’enfant et les sortilèges Ravel’s addresses his new musical preoccupations: a Wedgwood teapot and a Chinese teacup dance to a ragtime foxtrot in a score rippling through with jazz, blues, and melody.

The child’s fears are haunting and poignant. Pastoral figures torn from toile de Jouy wallpaper lament their destruction, looming like engraved ghosts. Cats hiss with menacing sexuality; insects accuse; trees – which march towards the child in a moment of pure theatrical enchantment – vent their anger until at last the perils and dangers of this night are over: the boy holds out his arms and the music calls out the reassuring, two-note Maman.

This is one-act opera has always attracted conductors and Maestro Dutoit is no exception. With the BSO, a roster of internationally known singers, and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, he succeeded in conveying the orchestration infinite beauty, the  theatricality of the libretto, the playful aspects of the subject and multiplicity of mood, the humor as well as the score’s joy and complex alchemy. Dutoit also restored the Straussian voluptuousness of Ravel’s score. He visually articulated this catalogue of miniature objects and animals that questions with a Cukorien lightness childhood’s “monstrosity.” Exploding in tableaux vivants with an array of fantasies, the opera relates to both the Wizard of Oz and the Nabis.

Ravel’s often extraordinary tessituras were rendered with impeccable diction by the singers: Julie Boulianne, admirable in cantilena passages and in parlando protests and cries (as the energetic Child); soprano Olga Peretyatko an exuberant but fearless coloratura, with a killer trill, portraying the wildest hysteria, but alas omitting the F-sharp major (as the Fire, the Nigthtingale); soprano Sandrine Piau displaying more than ever, creamy legato, beauty of timber and touching lyricism (as the Princess). There were two plangent-toned mezzos-sopranos in Diana Axentii (Bergère, White Cat, Squirrel, Shepherd) and Yvonne Naef (Mother, Chinese Cup, Dragonfly). Baritone David Wilson-Johnson (Black Cat) and mezzo-soprano Diana Axentii (White Cat) looked and sounded a very sexy pair of felines. Tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt (frog and arithmetic) captivated with his stylish presstissimo declaiming the numbers. Dutoit’s direction was in perfect harmony with the burlesque and jazz, and with the constantly shimmering
grotesque tremolos.

In both Le Rossignol and L’enfant et les sortilèges, we were spectators of imaginary theater, centered around one character; a female in the first and a boy in the second. Le Rossignol was the symbol of singing, of artistic decision in relation to an environment and milieu not prepared to receive art. L’enfant et les Sortilèges was far from remote brooding as it evokes color and action. Thus we cannot share the opinion of  Theodor W. Adorno, who in the 1950s (at the time Stravinsky composed in neoclassical and Mozartian style The Rake’s Progress) declared that Stravinsky is reactionary and Ravel progressive. Both composers used the same polytonic devices working closely together before the First World War on a performing version of Moussorgsky’s Khovanshchina (now apparently lost). They carried on a long correspondence and had mutual admiration despite growing differences in their musical tastes and judgments.

Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol exudes magic. His paradoxal allegory of life and death, reaches beyond the simple critical reading of the industrial revolution, which often reduces Le Rossignol to an automaton. Dutoit fulfilled our rendez-vous with the God who transforms (“giving a voice” says the fisherman’s leitmotiv) the brittle expressionist fishes into graceful birds. With L’enfant et les sortilèges Dutoit transported us once more with admirable expressiveness and technique into the world of fantasy and dream. Although a fifth of the seats in Symphony Hall were vacant, the audience, temporarally blessed with children’s eyes, broke into frantic warm and resonating applause as soon as he laid aside his
magical wand.

Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts

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