The world premiere of "The Nightingale" Sunday at Zoellner Arts Center in Bethlehem, seemlessly blended puppets and Bach in an utterly charming and engaging interpretation of the Hans Christian Andersen tale.
The Bach Choir Family Concert skillfully brought together the renowned chorale group and four-foot-tall puppets hand carved by Mock Turtle Marionettes for an hour-long show that was delightful from beginning to end.
The concert featured the glorious voices of 40 members of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem as well as 21 members of the Bach Festival Orchestra directed by Greg Funfgeld. Virtuoso recorder player Tricia Van Oers provided the lilting voice of the nightingale on multiple recorders.
The music was effectively woven around the puppet performance led by Mock Turtle's Doug Roysdon and fellow puppeteers Anna Russell, Willow Reichard-Flynn, Jamil Joseph, Sabrina De Weerdt and Sonya Hennet.
Grace Spruiell Hochella, a member of both Bach Choir and Mock Turtle, was a warm presence as a narrator who bridged the two groups and set up the story.
The story follows an emperor who is having trouble sleeping and asks his subjects to find him the nightingale whose song is legendary. When the small brown bird comes to the palace the emperor finally gets to sleep after hearing its lovely song. However the jealous music master gives the emperor a mechanical nightingale causing him to banish the bird and face death before realizing the nightingale's true worth.
The concert started with the closing chorus of Bach's Cantata 201 and then went into "Le Rossignal en Amour" (The Nightingale in Love) by Francois Couperin which became a recurring theme. The music was presented both on its own between the puppet performance, as well as during the action.
Van Oers' recorder soared on "Le Rossignol en Amour" (Nightingale in Love) and "Engels Nachtigaltje" by Jacob van Eyck as well as the recorder duet accompanying Bach's lyrical "Sheep may safely graze, which also became a recurring theme.
When the puppet of the emperor was introduced, Fungfeld on harpsichord helped establish the somewhat flighty and vain character. Roysdon voiced, as well as helped operate the large marionette which took on a humorous life of its own, snoring and reacting in fear at the appearance of the ghosts.
The ghosts were played by Russell, Reichard-Flynn, DeWeerdt and Hennet wearing masks and provided a bit of comic relief as they crept around the palace like spectral mice. They were given a jaunty air by William Bolcom's "Graceful Ghost Rag" played by Funfgeld on harpsichord and Elizabeth Field on violin.
Particularly effective was the performance of "Lachrimosa" from Mozart's Requiem, after the emperor banished the nightingale in favor of the clunky, but flashy, mechanical bird, one of ten puppets made by Roysdon.
The backdrop of silhouetted windows and trees, and flowers that are cleverly turned by the ghosts, added atmosphere to the production.
After the return of the nightingale, the emperor said "It is a good morning" to the joyous strains of "Peace be Over Israel" from Bach Cantata 34 giving an uplifting conclusion to the playful and effective melding of music and puppets.
The performance will be repeated during the Bethlehem Bach Festival May 12-13 and 19-20.
Photo by Hub Willson