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Concert Review | Brilliant instrumentation, singing charm Symphony Hall audiences

Published: Monday, November 5, 2012

Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 06:11


After a successful performance of Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto the previous week, Charles Dutoit returned to Symphony Hall on Thursday, Oct. 25 to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This week’s lineup included two operatic works: “The Nightingale” by Igor Stravinsky and “L’enfant et les Sortiléges” by Maurice Ravel. Both pieces created a memorable night of charm and laughter.

Due to the nightingale’s seemingly spontaneous song, the bird’s image has historically been a prevalent symbol in writing and music. Renowned writers including Oscar Wilde and John Keats have been inspired by the nightingale, devoting entire poems and stories to the melodious creature. Stravinsky continued this time-honored tradition by paying tribute with an opera.

The story of “The Nightingale,” based on a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, centers on a nightingale in ancient China whose song enchants the Emperor. Yet, when the Emperor receives a mechanical nightingale as a gift, the original nightingale returns to the forest, leaving the Emperor furious. Finally, as the Emperor lays on his deathbed, the true nightingale returns and saves the emperor by convincing Death to leave.

Dutoit handled Stravinsky with finesse. Aside from mezzo-soprano Diana Axentii, all the singers sang with detail and clarity, despite an orchestral tendency to overpower their voices with Stravinsky’s striking harmonies. Dutoit’s expert control of volume during Act II, where the orchestra explodes in dissonance and thick harmonies, kept the piece level rather than incoherent. This was a refreshing change from the vocal mess that was the BSO’s performance of “Porgy and Bess” in September. Dutoit proved that the acoustics in Symphony Hall can do Stravinsky justice.

The star of the night was soprano Olga Peretyatko, who poured life into the Nightingale. Though Peretyatko’s dense textural harmonies enabled her to pierce through the orchestra’s volume, her soft impression of the Nightingale was convincing enough to make the audience feel like a real bird was singing behind them as she played with the reverberation of the room. Her dynamic voice left the hall in complete silence as listeners eagerly awaited her next phrase.

Ravel’s “L’enfant et les Sortiléges,” also known as “The Bewitched Child” in English, tells the story of a mischievous young boy who, after being scolded for not doing his schoolwork, smashes teacups, rips up wallpaper and destroys a grandfather clock. These broken objects later come to life and haunt him for his terrible behavior. “L’enfant et les sortiléges” is effectively a French take on a combination of Scrooge’s tale in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and Alice’s plight in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland.” In this humorous, imaginative work, Ravel writes parts for animals as well as inanimate objects. The singers clearly enjoyed themselves as they got to mimic a cat’s “meow” and a clock’s “ding.” The audience, and a number of performers, erupted into laughter at each instance.

Unlike Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale,” Ravel’s “L’enfant et les Sortiléges” was a lighter work and consequently, the chorus was more easily audible. Dutoit used Ravel’s massive orchestration to bring out color and texture. Some of the more unorthodox instruments in this performance included a rattle, a prepared piano and even a whip. This diversity of instruments truly allowed the clocks, chairs and teacups come to life.

The characters in this fantasy were personified once again under Dutoit’s baton, and the effect was further facilitated by the performers’ enthusiasm. The conversations in the piece felt very realistic and singer Julie Boulianne’s animated performance as the opera’s child protagonist added a sense of natural development to the concert.

The entire performance was as musically interesting as it was entertaining. Alongside Dutoit’s skillful conducting, the orchestra delivered a highly amusing, enjoyable concert. Though the Boston Symphony Orchestra has recently had a long and unstable string of guest conductors, Dutoit was a standout visitor and audiences will undoubtedly look forward to his return in January.

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