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ODES TO THE NIGHTINGALE
By Tim Smith

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown.
-- John Keats

In his "Ode to a Nightingale," Keats caught the romantic fascination with a nocturnal avian song unlike any other, one that seems to come from, or beckon to, another world. In his fairy tale "The Nightingale," Hans Christian Andersen developed a fanciful story that seems to echo Keats' imagery, taking place "in ancient days" when "emperor and clown" heard that song in the "passing night." In his opera "The Nightingale," Igor Stravinsky transformed Andersen's imaginative scenario into a disarming, genre-bending work with soaring vocal lines and prismatic orchestration.

And now, in his ingenious computer animation-enhanced film version of Stravinsky's opera, director Christian Chaudet has created his own ode to "The Nightingale," a magical fusion of sound and imagery.

Although Stravinsky might not have understood the fanciful touches in Chaudet's cinematic treatment -- a cell phone, dozens of computer screens being used by Web searchers, a marching army of spotlights, and an applause-monitored TV talent contest are among the surprises that turn up in this look at "ancient days" -- the composer would surely have relished the sensitivity and imagination of the filmmaking, which never obscures the basic moral of the story. And he would no doubt have appreciated the quality of the music, drawn from the 1999 EMI recording of the opera featuring the same highly expressive cast that provides the actors for the movie.

Chaudet's "Nightingale" effectively smoothes over an aspect of the opera that has drawn some comment since its premiere in 1914 -- the change in musical style between the first act and the remaining two. Stravinsky finished that first act in 1909, envisioning it as a stand-alone piece. By the time he received a commission from a Moscow theater to turn "The Nightingale" into a longer work, the composer had advanced dramatically in his own musical language.

Stravinsky in 1914 was a totally different composer, having moved from the Rimsky-Korsakov and postimpressionist influences that produced the shimmer of "The Firebird" ballet (1910) to the raw energy, revolutionary rhythms, and dissonant blows of "The Rite of Spring" (1913).

The first act of "The Nightingale" belonged to that earlier period, so picking up from there a few years later would have been tricky. At first, the composer wasn't much interested in trying, but the director of that Moscow theater made him an offer he couldn't refuse (10,000 rubles).

The one-act piece that Stravinsky wrote in 1909 did not deal with the full Andersen fairy tale, but only a slender scenario: the Fisherman, mending his nets on the edge of a forest, praises the consoling power of the Nightingale's song he hears each night. A retinue from the Emperor of China hears the song and invites the Nightingale to the court. The bird's departure leaves the Fisherman to lament his loss.

The second and third acts are set at the court of the Emperor, who, greatly moved by the Nightingale's song, offers to bestow the order of the Golden Slipper upon the bird. "The teardrops shining in your grateful eyes, O Emperor, I wish for nothing more," the Nightingale replies. Suddenly, a rival is introduced by Japanese ambassadors, who arrive bearing a mechanical bird. The Nightingale flies away. In his anger, the Emperor banishes the Nightingale forever and names the mechanical bird First Singer of the court, to be placed on the left-hand night table "of our royal self."



Top banner photos: The Child (Hugo Simcic) spies The Fisherman on the vase; The Cook (Marie McLaughlin) prepares for the Emperor's fete; The Nightingale (Natalie Dessay) (left and center photos: Agat Films & Cie -- 2005).

The Emperor's courtiers

The Emperor's courtiers.

Baritone Albert Schagidullin as The Emperor.

Russian baritone Albert Schagidullin as The Emperor.

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This program is available on DVD.


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