One of the most exciting BSO performances I’ve ever heard was also one of the poorest attended. Probably a fifth of the seats in Symphony Hall were vacant last night. Those who shunned the concert probably have no idea of what they were missing. In the two short operas, Stravinsky’s Solovyei (The Nightingale), and Ravel’s l’Enfant et les sortilèges (sometimes translated as ”The Bewitched Child ”), we have two of the greatest composers of the 20th-century exercising their fullest imagination and fantasy.
Charles Dutoit, whose expert leadership made the Montreal Symphony into an orchestra of international reputation and whose Stravinsky recordings are among the best available, ably led the Boston Symphony with a maximum of controlled expression and zero histrionics. (Full disclosure: I didn’t know Dutoit, but we were both students at Tanglewood in 1959.)
It’s true that Stravinsky’s Nightingale is much less familiar than his big three ballet scores or his most beloved neoclassical works. But this early opera contains a good deal of exciting and challenging music as well as an interesting glimpse of what Stravinsky composed before the pathbreaking Firebird. The composer and his friend Stepan Mitusov cobbled together a Russian libretto for The Nightingale from a well-known story by Hans Christian Andersen. (For years the only available recordings of the opera were in French, Le rossignol.) Stravinsky completed the first act of The Nightingale in 1909, after the death of his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov but before he received the commission for The Firebird that propelled him to worldwide fame. He didn’t even begin the second and third acts until 1913, after the sensational premiere of The Rite of Spring. In just four years, Stravinsky’s style evolved so far and so radically that the discrepancy between the first and later acts is startling. The Nightingale begins with an unabashed imitation of Debussy’s Nuages (an excellent model, no doubt, but Stravinsky later tried to excuse it by suggesting that he was cribbing from Musorgsky), and continues much in the vein of Rimsky’s Golden Cockerel as well as an arioso style that is reminiscent of The Snow Maiden. But the greater part of Act II involves an explosive polychordal harmony that takes up and goes beyond where even the densest chromaticism of The Rite of Spring left off. (You could say that the strident opening measures of Act II are just a complex dominant ninth, and there is even a key signature, three sharps.) In Act III there are passages of undiluted atonality that clearly reveal the influence of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, which Stravinsky had heard, and been enormously impressed by, just a year before, in late 1912. All of these significant differences in harmonic idiom and tonal spectrum are entirely suitable for the story of the opera. (But we don’t know whether it was The Nightingale or The Rite of Spring that caused Debussy to remark to a friend, “Stravinsky is leaning dangerously close to Schoenberg.”)
As late as 1960 Stravinsky wrote: “I now find that Act I, in spite of its very evident Debussyisms, vocalises à la Lakmé, and Tchaikovsky melodies too sweet and too cute even for that date, is at least operatic, whereas the later acts are a kind of opera-pageant ballet.” Most audiences who know any of this music are likely to consider that Stravinsky’s later symphonic poem, The Song of the Nightingale (1917), assembles and crystallizes the best music of the opera, almost entirely from Acts II and III; Lorin Maazel conducted this at the BSO in January of last year. In the full operatic version, the dramatic action of those acts is more dispersed musically, and not easy to follow without stage action. But this minor demurrer recedes when I remember what a fine vocal performance I heard last night, with all singers demonstrating first-rate technique and expression. I was particularly impressed with Olga Peretyatko in the coloratura role of the Nightingale, Edgaras Montvidas as the Fisherman, and David Wilson-Johnson as the Emperor of China. Stravinsky’s reference to vocalises caused me to remember that his early Pastorale for wordless soprano and piano is a vocalise in F-sharp major, and that the Nightingale’s first entrance in the opera is also wordless, and in the same key (enharmonically, G-flat major).
Hats off to John Ferillo, solo oboe in the “Mechanical Nightingale” episode (which blends C major, E-flat minor, A-flat major and D minor in a weird assortment of keys). I would have been happier if the trumpets and trombones had played their fortissimos somewhat softer — but only somewhat; this is something that Charles Dutoit could easily correct.
Various writers point to the apparent division of Ravel’s creative evolution into prewar and postwar phases — up to 1916, when Ravel entered active service as a truck driver in the Great War, and after 1917, when he was recovering from a major breakdown in his health. The prewar phase included his most significant chamber music and songs, nearly all of his piano music, the ballet Daphnis et Chloé, and his first opera, l’Heure espagnole, and all of these bracket everything of Ravel’s that, for better or worse, can be called “impressionist. ” After the war Ravel is noted for his developing neoclassicism and for outstanding individual works like Boléro, the Piano Concerto, the Chansons madécasses, and his only other opera, l’Enfant et les sortilèges, which no small number of writers consider to be his greatest accomplishment. Ravel worked on the opera for five years off and on between 1919 and 1924, using a libretto written expressly for him by the novelist Colette. I reviewed the Boston Conservatory’s remarkably good staged performance (with reduced orchestra) in these pages [here] last February.
It is impossible in just a few words to describe the rich variety of musical and dramatic invention in l’Enfant et les sortilèges; one has to hear it, preferably in person, and if children are brought to the performance they need to be prepared or at least warned. Last night’s excellent performance and the enthusiasm shown for it made it amply clear why this masterpiece resonates so perfectly as concert music without the bizarre and complex staging called for in the score. Stravinsky’s Nightingale Olga Peretyatko excelled also as Ravel’s Nightingale and in the furiously difficult part of the Fire, mezzo Julie Boulianne was outstanding as the Child, and tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was beguiling in the comic roles of Mr. Arithmetic and the Frog. The Arithmetic scene ended with fff and one of the most frightening Prestissimo passages I’ve heard in a long time. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus (with its precise Russian pronunciation and accurate pitch throughout) brought tears to my eyes in The Shepherds’ Chorus. The electronic supertitles also succeeded very well, although they understandably gave up on the fake-Chinese “Ça-oh-râ caskara hara-kiri Sessue Hayakawa!”
Above all, it was good to hear this work of amazing orchestral originality with its full instrumentation, from luthéal-piano (if that’s what it was; I couldn’t tell for certain, but it surely wasn’t a harpsichord, in the armchair-sofa duet) and slide whistle to the assortment of oddments in the percussion section (even a cheese grater, râpe à fromage, is called for in the teapot-teacup foxtrot), and a gratifying variety of instrumental solos. The scary trombone solo in the teacup-teapot foxtrot, for example, is written in the treble clef, going up to D on the fourth line. And how many listeners could correctly identify the weird, out-of-tune flute-like sounds weaving in and out of the two high oboes at the beginning? The score reveals these as natural harmonics on a solo double bass, playing off the end of the fingerboard on the G string. Edwin Barker, section leader of the double basses, got a well-deserved ovation; his solo playing during the “cat duet” was especially memorable.