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Stagings draw out Stravinsky's theatrical verve
- Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic
Saturday, December 10, 2005

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Stravinsky's music all sounds different, and it all sounds fundamentally alike.

The two stage works that Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony undertook for Thursday's fascinating program in Davies Symphony Hall -- the shimmery fairy tale "The Nightingale" and the starkly neoclassical "Oedipus Rex" -- encompass wide leaps in style. Yet there's no mistaking the guiding sensibility at work behind every measure.

Thomas' forays into semistaged theatrical performance have become a regular and welcome feature of the Symphony's offerings in recent years, and the current double bill seems particularly well suited to this kind of presentation.

Neither piece, for one thing, sits comfortably inside genre borders. "The Nightingale," though dubbed an opera, was staged at its 1914 Paris premiere as a blend of ballet and vocal theater. And "Oedipus," as the composer's own subtitle makes clear, is an "opera-oratorio" -- too stately and formalized for the operatic stage, yet too vividly dramatic to be fully contained by the concert hall.

All of these contradictions registered crisply in Thursday's performance, as did the breadth of Stravinsky's copious musical imagination. In Thomas' vibrant, multifaceted readings, every color in the composer's stylistic palette -- from the lush Debussyan swirls of Act 1 of "The Nightingale" to the austere rhythmic profile of "Oedipus" -- made its splendor felt.

"Oedipus," the better known of the two works, provided the most pointed dramatic thrill in a canny, restrained staging by director Carey Perloff. The tension in a strong performance of this piece lies in the competing claims of formality and emotional urgency, and those two impulses fought it out brilliantly.

On one side is Stravinsky's ostentatious commitment to artifice and a well-scrubbed impassivity, exemplified by his choice of Latin for the libretto and the archaic alternation of soloists and chorus. But on the other is the sheer potency of the tale itself, and the expressive rhetoric with which Stravinsky -- in spite of everything -- sets the key moments.

Tenor Stuart Skelton, a late replacement for Anthony Dean Griffey, rose superbly to the challenge of the title role, his singing sinewy and clear. Mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung was a majestic, haunted Jocasta, and there were sonorous contributions from Tigran Martirossian as Creon, Ayk Martirossian as Tiresias and Bruce Sledge as the shepherd.

The men of the Symphony Chorus, clad a little inscrutably in masks and one red glove apiece, brought weight and transparency to their outbursts. Only English actor Roger Rees as the narrator seemed out of place, roaring and chewing the scenery like a carnival barker on uppers.

"The Nightingale," which Stravinsky wrote in two stages several years apart, is a slightly more problematic venture. The plot is based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale about a bird adopted by the Emperor of China whose song, ultimately superior to that of mechanical simulacra (take that, Mr. Edison!), even has the power to vanquish death.

The gap between the two sections is marked. Act 1 is a brilliantly scored stretch of Impressionist ear candy, while the latter two acts, composed after the transformative experience of the three great Russian ballets, offer blunter, more high-impact stuff.

Yet there is an underlying continuity at work as well, evident in the virtuosic use of orchestral color and even some of the rhythmic language. And if Stravinsky's writing for voice is occasionally awkward, the combination of whimsy and hard-edged moralism is telling.

Director Patricia Birch's production played out amid a beautiful collection of chinoiserie by Douglas Schmidt (sets), Dona Granata (costumes) and Kirk Bookman (lighting), and it integrated the use of singers and dancers without misstep -- never more arrestingly than in the Nightingale's double appearance within the bosom of a lambent moon.

Soprano Olga Trifonova was a bright-toned but sometimes strident Nightingale, mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook did a witty double turn as the Imperial Cook and Death, and the Martirossian brothers rounded out the cast nicely. As the Fisherman, tenor Paul Groves struggled a bit with the music's sinuous lyricism.

The expressive dancers were Natalie Willes (the Nightingale), Titus West (Death) and Joe Duffy (Spectre), and there was an eye-popping appearance by three contortionists from the Vau de Vire Society, encased in gold vinyl and giving a precise visual correlative of the horrors of mechanical birdsong.

San Francisco Symphony: The subscription program repeats at 8 p.m. Saturday in Davies Symphony Hall. Tickets: $30-$107. Call (415) 864-6000 or go to www.sfsymphony.org.

E-mail Joshua Kosman at jkosman@sfchronicle.com.

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