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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2016 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Opera Review: Magic on Mass. Ave.

Charles Dutoit conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
"Now children, swish and flick." Charles Dutoit casts a magic spell.
Thursday night's Boston Symphony Orchestra concert at Symphony Hall featured a twin bill of 20th century operas by Stravinsky and Ravel. Although very different in sound, each 45-minute opera was dedicated to the exploration of fairy tale worlds and the use of vast orchestral resources to depict magical events. The program was conducted by Charles Dutoit.

The Stravinsky work was Le Rossignol, ("The Nightingale") an opera set in that same peculiar European vision of ancient China as Puccini's Turandot. This short three-act opera is based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen, of a Chinese emperor's complicated relationship with a nightingale (Olga Peretyako) whose song has the power to bring tears and ultimately, save the life of the dying Emperor.

Le Rossignol had a difficult genesis. In fact, the composer had only just finished the first act when he was commissioned by his friend Sergei Diaghalev to write a ballet for Paris, a work that turned out to be The Firebird. He did not complete the second and third acts until after the premiere of The Rite of Spring. The first act breathes with exoticism and orchestral combinations that are redolent of Stravinsky's teacher Rimsky-Korsakov. The second part features a thunderous Chinese march and strange tonalities permeating the final confrontation with Death.

Ms. Peretyako displayed a soprano voice of great range and power, singing the Russian text with a delicate bel canto tone that was still capable of matching wits against the enormous orchestral forces. Also featured: a sensitive, sometimes comic performance from British baritone David Wilson-Jennings as the Emperor, tenor Edgaras Montvidas in the lyric role of the Fisherman (whose repeated song serves as a frame for the story) and expert accompaniment from Mr. Dutoit and the Boston forces.

If the Stravinsky opera deals with the exotic, Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges ("The Child and the Enchantments") (based on a libretto by the composer's friend Colette) is decidedly domestic. This is the stoy of a bad little boy (Julie Bouilliane) who refuses to do his homework one night. He throws a temper tantrum, breaking his furniture, the tea set and damaging the books. Then, the objects around him come vividly to life in a series of short confrontations with the Child. The action then moves to the garden, where an angry tree and various animals take vengeance on their tormentor, only to discover that he is (deep down) compassionate and good.

Ravel's score animates the chairs, grandfather clock and tea set with deadly accuracy and good humor. The Boston players executed the complicated score with skill, including parts for exotic instruments like prepared piano and slide flute. Mr. Dutoit maneuvered the ensemble between spiky accompaniment and impressionistic washes of sound, ushering the various "enchantments" on and off the concert stage with brisk efficiency.

Ms. Bouilliane was appropriately petulant in the title role, singing against the huge orchestral-choral backdrop with individuality and a sense of redemption and regret in her final cry of "Maman!" The large cast of eight singers taking various supporting parts. Particularly notable was Mr. Wilson-Johnson as the broken grandfather clock, Sandrine Piau as the Princess and Matthew Rose as the Chair. Mention must also be made of comic tenor Jean-Paul Fauchecourt as the Math Textbook, whose nonsense equations were delivered at a speed that would make most politicians envious.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, under the direction of John Oliver sang the tricky choral parts with warmth and understanding, lending a glow of humanity to Ravel's precise music. They were most haunting in the chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses, a funeral march for the destructive child's destroyed wallpaper that is the score's most mournful moment.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.