Posted on Sat, Dec. 10, 2005

Stravinsky double-bill a spirited spectacle


IGOR STRAVINSKY never intended "Le Rossignol" and "Oedipus Rex" to be performed together, but you wouldn't have known it from Thursday evening's San Francisco Symphony performance. Under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas, the composer's 1914 opera and 1927 opera-oratorio, presented back-to-back in a semi-staged concert format, added up to a potent 20th century double bill.

Thursday's concert at Davies Hall, which featured the orchestra, S.F. Symphony Chorus, dancers, actors and an excellent lineup of vocal soloists, was the latest in a growing number of concert stagings of operatic works the S.F. Symphony has presented in recent years. Tilson Thomas has demonstrated a deft touch in his capacity as producer, and this program adds another feather to his showman's cap.

The program also represents another aspect of this conductor's affinity for Stravinsky's music. Regular symphonygoers are familiar with Tilson Thomas' keen-edged approach to the composer's major orchestral works -- particularly "The Rite of Spring" and "The Firebird" -- but "Oedipus Rex" and "Le Rossignol" afford the listener a rare view of Stravinsky's prolific musical gifts. Both are unusual, and both are seldom staged -- the S.F. Symphony has only performed "Oedipus Rex" twice before (most recently in 1982), and these are the orchestra's first performances of "Le Rossignol." Stravinsky aficionados are strongly advised to catch the final performance tonight at Davies.

"Le Rossignol," which opened the concert, is part musical theater and part spectacle. Stravinsky referred to the 1914 opera as "a musical fairy tale"; borrowing Hans Christian Andersen's story of an exotic, sweet-singing nightingale that charms the Emperor of China, the composer (and librettist Stepan Mitusov) conjured a world of enchantment. Today's audiences may find the work's view of the Orient a bit precious, but it remains one of the 20th century's most delicate and enduring musical theater creations.

Both productions were designed by Douglas Schmidt (set), Dona Granata (costumes) and Kirk Bookman (lighting). The team gave "Le Rossignol" a suitably exotic staging, with the singers positioned above the orchestra on a platform trimmed with Chinese brush paintings and red paper lanterns. A huge round gong at center stage did triple duty as a backdrop, a screen for projected images and a lens through which the dancers could be seen. Director Patricia Birch kept the actors, playing courtesans, courtiers and envoys, in constant motion.

Tilson Thomas drew diaphanous, beautifully colored playing from the orchestra, and the singers delivered the opera's fragrant vocal lines with flair. Tenor Paul Groves was particularly strong as the Fisherman, and soprano Olga Trifonova sang the Nightingale's challenging coloratura with pure, agile tone. Basses Tigran Martirossian (the Emperor) and Ayk Martirossian (the Chamberlain), and mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook (in the dual role of Death and the Cook) made strong contributions. The dancers featured Natalie Willes as the Nightingale and Titus West as Death; three performers -- Fleeky Flanco, Tracy Piper and Alexis Greene -- from the Vau de Vire Society supplied an episode of visual magic as the opera's Mechanical Nightingale.

The program took a dramatic turn with the second half's performance of "Oedipus Rex." Stravinsky's 1927 opera-oratorio, which features a libretto by Jean Cocteau, is roughly the same length as "Le Rossignol," but it moves with the kind of propulsive power the earlier work lacks. The composer's neo-classical style found an aptly large-scale subject in the familiar Greek tragedy; the writing is blunt and forceful (particularly in the square-cut parts for men's chorus), and after the subtleties of "Le Rossignol," it made a considerable impact. Tilson Thomas drove the performance with an unerring sense of forward motion, and Carey Perloff, artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater, supplied efficient stage direction. With the set cleared of the first half's chinoiserie, a bolder color scheme dominated; the chorus wore gold masks and red gloves, while Oedipus, looking like a wealthy televangelist, made his entrance in a white suit.

Tenor Stuart Skelton, a last-minute replacement for the originally scheduled Anthony Dean Griffey, assumed the title role with strength and authority. Ayk Martirossian's affecting Tiresias was the evening's vocal standout. Tigran Martirossian's Creon and Bruce Sledge's Shepherd sang handsomely. The guys get most of the stage time, but the woman get the best music; as Jocasta, mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung looked and sounded golden. After the 1927 premiere of "Oedipus Rex," Stravinsky expressed regrets about Cocteau's decision to add a narrator (called the Speaker). Stravinsky felt the story didn't need explaining; Thursday's overheated reading by actor Roger Rees suggested Stravinsky was right. The writing for chorus, however, is essential, and the men of Vance George's S.F. Symphony Chorus have never sounded better.

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