SAN FRANCISCO — In his list of works, Stravinsky's short fairy-tale opera, "The Nightingale" ("Le Rossignol"), follows almost directly on the heels of his great string of early Russian ballets. With "The Firebird," "Petrushka" and "The Rite of Spring" already to his credit, "The Nightingale" had the potential to be Stravinsky's "Nutcracker," one of his most popular works.
Instead, this operatic evocation of a songbird in ancient China is the composer's ugly duckling, seldom performed and little recorded. But thanks in part to the worldwide attention the bicentennial of Hans Christian Andersen's birth is receiving, the opera is starting to be trotted out. Late last week, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted its first San Francisco Symphony performances on a semi-staged double bill with Stravinsky's better-known opera-oratorio, "Oedipus Rex."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 17, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Baritone's role -- An article in Tuesday's Calendar section about Stravinsky operas said baritone Bryn Terfel sang the role of Oedipus on a new DVD of the opera-oratorio "Oedipus Rex." Terfel plays Creon.
On Dec. 21, meanwhile, KCET and other PBS stations will broadcast a video "Nightingale" that uses the musical resources of the Paris Opera, stars the popular French soprano Natalie Dessay and fancifully blends live action and animation. It is also available on a Virgin DVD.
That it has taken the San Francisco Symphony this long to perform "The Nightingale" is particularly striking given that Pierre Monteux, who conducted its premiere in Paris in 1914, was music director in the Bay Area in the 1950s. But even he was not a champion of a work often considered stylistically inconsistent.
Stravinsky began it just before writing "The Firebird," and the opera opens with a similarly lush, colorfully enthralling musical landscape. Put aside and not finished until after "The Rite," the opera's second and third acts are more tart, reflecting the composer's evolving musical style.
Still, to a 21st century listener familiar with the considerably wider divide between this still early period in Stravinsky's development and his many later radical changes in style, the difference between the first act of "Nightingale" and the later two doesn't exactly offend. And whatever disconnect there is Tilson Thomas took care of with his wonderfully atmospheric conducting, which allowed for a great individuality of detail within magisterial long lines.
Yet problems persisted Saturday night. Davies Symphony Hall was done up to look like a Chinese restaurant, and Patricia Birch's overly busy staging on a small platform behind the orchestra demonstrated a certain exasperation with trying to fit far too much action onto a confined space, action that included dancers and contortionists.
Olga Trifonova was the expressive Nightingale who sings away Death from the Emperor's Porcelain Palace. And Paul Groves excelled as the fisherman who sets the exquisite scene. But the magic was in the orchestra and Tilson Thomas' conducting. The performance was sung in French, but the conducting and Trifonova reminded us of the Russian original.
The new video, by contrast, is completely over the top in attempting to create visual magic. Its sensibility is Las Vegas tackiness, and the idea behind it lamebrained. A little boy sneaks into his grandfather's pottery shop, the pottery comes alive and the boy hops on the Internet to find a nightingale. Instruments fly through space. But the trite, if eye-popping, animation makes the live singers look utterly phony.
Nothing works visually. Yet the performance is engagingly conducted by James Conlon (who will become music director of Los Angeles Opera next season) and includes some superb singing. Dessay is a dream Nightingale, even looking like an operatic bull in an anime china shop. And Violeta Urmana, the current Tosca at L.A. Opera, is at least a vivid musical presence as Death. Oddly, this very French "Rossignol" is done in the original Russian.
Only a dozen years separate "The Nightingale" from "Oedipus Rex," but by then Stravinsky was full into his neoclassical period. Jean Cocteau devised a scenario much bitchier than Sophocles', but Stravinsky created a formal theatrical distance by having it translated into Latin and by treating his characters like living statues.
In San Francisco, the Davies was transformed from dim sum parlor to Greek coffee shop. But the production was directed with about as much delicious flair as could be hoped for by Carey Perloff, artistic director of San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater. The cast included Stuart Skelton as a weak-willed, decadent Oedipus in a white suit, gold vest and gold shoulder drapery. Michelle DeYoung's Jocasta had the scary seductiveness of Mrs. Robinson.
For his part, Tilson Thomas demonstrated just how sly Stravinsky could be. For all his neoclassicism, the composer sometimes calls for near-Verdian expression, and the conductor responded with daring, electrifying verve.
By coincidence, "Oedipus Rex" is just out on DVD as well. The production, from Tokyo, was Julie Taymor's entree into opera, and it features Jessye Norman at her gripping peak as Jocasta and a young Bryn Terfel as Oedipus. Made in the early '90s but long unavailable, it has been reissued by Philips and remains one of the most stunningly original video productions of any opera.
Unlike Tilson Thomas, Seiji Ozawa follows rather than leads, but what he follows is Taymor's miraculous mixing of traditionally masked actors with the Japanese avant-garde. Has no one ever thought to have Taymor follow this up with a "Nightingale"? Put her and Tilson Thomas together and something extraordinary would surely result.