Igor Stravinsky’s “The Nightingale” (1914) and Maurice Ravel’s “L’enfant et les sortilèges” (1925) are 45-minute operas that assert the healing power of nature’s creatures and of song. The only thing better than having one on a program is having both, which is what the Boston Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Charles Dutoit offered at Symphony Hall Thursday night.
In “The Nightingale,” based on the Hans Christian Andersen tale, the title bird enthralls the Chinese emperor before being replaced by a mechanical nightingale that the Japanese emperor gives him. Later, as the Chinese emperor is dying, the nightingale returns and makes death relent by promising to sing every night. It’s a dark tale with a symbolist libretto: the nightingale sings of roses that weep and tears that are stars, and Stravinsky’s music echoes the anxieties of “Le sacre du printemps.”
Olga Peretyatko was supreme in the title role, a seductive siren in full control of her phrasing and the audience, with whom she maintained eye contact, barely looking at her score. Diana Axentii was a spunky cook, Edgaras Montvidas a fisherman whose tenor suggested the depth and mystery of the sea. Dutoit started cautiously, but built the drama with pellucid textures, and he didn’t neglect Stravinsky’s black humor. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus contributed power and excellent Russian; Elizabeth Ostling excelled in the nightingale’s trilling flute.
“L’enfant et les sortilèges” (“The Child and the Spells”) takes place in a farmhouse in Normandy, where the child, scolded by his mother for not doing his homework, smashes a Wedgwood teapot and a china cup, slashes the wallpaper, and breaks the grandfather clock, whereupon they all come to life and menace him, and outside in the garden, the trees and the creatures he’s hurt attack him, as well. Ravel’s whimsical score, a nightmare version of his “Ma Mère l’Oye” with overtones of his G-major Piano Concerto, brims with sarabandes and Viennese waltzes and boozy foxtrots.
This was a success in the same vein, with Dutoit creating ear-splitting climaxes and Julie Boulianne mischievously engaging as the spoiled, self-pitying child who grows into tenderness and compassion. Her highlight was the Puccini-like aria in which the child bewails the loss of his fairy-tale princess. Peretyatko was a scalding fire, Axentii a chattering squirrel, Yvonne Naef a waltzing dragonfly, Sandrine Piau the tormented princess. And then there were the comic duets: Axentii and David Wilson-Johnson as yowling cats (a Wagner parody?), Naef and Montvidas as the Chinese cup and the Wedgwood teapot. Both pairs were so funny that even Dutoit could be seen breaking into a smile.