Arts & Events

With A Libretto by Colette, Ravel’s L’ENFANT ET LES SORTILÈGES Is Magical

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday July 02, 2019 - 10:25:00 AM

San Francisco Symphony closed out its current season with three performances, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, June 27, 29-30, of Maurice Ravel’s magical one-act opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Whether the French word sortilèges is translated as “magic spells,” “enchantments,” or “supernatural spirits,” this charming opera is set to a libretto by Colette as a kind of fairy tale written for her daughter. Ravel, who identified with children, took great pains in setting this text to glorious music full of surprising shifts of tone, mood, and vocal and instrumental color. Though long considered difficult to stage, L’Enfant et les sortilèges was given imaginative treatment by French video artist Grégoire Pont, who staged it for Opéra National de Lyon in 2016 It is this scintillating production by Grégoire Pont and director James Bonas that graced our performances at Davies Symphony Hall. 

The story involves a naughty child, a boy of six or seven, who doesn’t want to do his homework or perform the chores his mother asks him to do. So he throws a tantrum, wreaking havoc in his room, breaking things right and left, even threatening to pull the cat’s tail and cut off the tail of a pet squirrel he keeps in a cage. Suddenly, however, the broken toys and furniture come to life, and admonish the boy. They fiercely rebel against his destructive tantrums. Even the trees and animals in the garden rebel against the boy’s depredations. In the role of the boy, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was outstanding. She stomped around petulantly wearing knee pants and a cap, giving a virtuosos performance that made us understand Colette’s point that a child’s misbehavior has roots in an unquenchable desire to rebel against constraints, and that, underneath all the misdeeds, there is in every child a core of goodness and compassion.  

Right from the opening title-sequence, set to Ravel’s instrumental music from two oboes and a string bass, there is visual and musical magic. Sparks of light are projected onto a screen, then fly around like fireflies, and eventually form lines that spell out the title of this opera. When singers enter, they interact spatially with what is projected onto the screen, giving an illusion of depth. It is an ingenious theatrical staging. one that constantly enchants and even amazes us. When Mama, sung by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, scolds the boy, she repeatedly points an accusing finger at him; and we see a drawing of that same pointing finger projected larger than life onto the screen, emphasizing its intimidating nature. 

There’s a magical number when Fire, gorgeously sung by soprano Anna Christy, tells the boy that fire warms the good child but burns the naughty child. While she sings her flamboyant coloratura, flames are projected as if shooting upward out of her head, eventually engulfing the naughty boy. When the boy breaks the teapot and his favorite Wedgewood teacup, the broken crockery comes to life and dances a foxtrot. A broken armchair dances a courtly sarabande to sadly recall its days of glory in the reign of Louis XV. A grandfather clock laments its broken pendulum and chimes out of control. 

A fairy princess appears, reminding the boy of how he dreamed of her when he read about her in his book of fairy tales. Sung by soprano Anna Christy in a passage that begins as a duet for voice and flute, the princess reminds the boy that she was indeed his first love. But now, she laments, the pages of his book have been torn apart and scattered like the wind. What has become of that love? 

Amidst all this destruction, two cats are suddenly heard. One, a female white cat, is outside; while the other, a male black cat, is inside. Hearing the sinuous meowing of the female, the male exits to join her in an erotic love duet for two felines. Mezzo-Soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson was the white cat, and bass-baritone Kelly Markgraf was the black cat.  

Following this feline love duet, the boy too goes out into the garden. Now all of nature rebels against the boy’s depredations. A tree, sung by baritone Michael Todd Simpson, bemoans the wound he endured when the boy carved his initials in the tree’s trunk. A dragonfly, sung by Jennifer Johnson Cano, laments the loss of her mate, killed by the boy and stuck to his bedroom wall with a pin. The various plants and animals console one another; and this causes the boy to cry out in despair, “Maman.” Soon all of nature attacks the boy, and in the melee a squirrel is injured. The boy, feeling sorry for the squirrel, bandages the wound. Seeing this act of compassion from the heretofore naughty boy, all of nature acknowledges that, at the core, the boy, like every child, is good and compassionate. They take up in unison the boy’s earlier cry of “Maman,” as the opera comes to moving close. 

Throughout this magical opera, conductor Martyn Brabbins brought out Ravel’s marvelous orchestral color. Ragnar Bohlin’s Symphony Chorus joined forces with both the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco and the San Francisco Boys Chorus to convey the magical choral scenes. But above all else, it was the magical combination of Colette’s sensitive libretto, Ravel’s endlessly inventive music, and video artist Grégoire Pont’s ingenious animation that made this production of L’Enfant et les sortilèges a work of the highest caliber. My readers may recall that I have been mercilessly critical of Michael Tilson Thomas for his misguided penchant for visual special effects. Indeed, almost every one of his prior uses of visual effects involved sophomoric work by Los Angeles-based James Darrah. Well, now we see that in the hands of a truly imaginative video artist such as Grégoire Pont, great things can be done that not only accompany the music but also probe deeper into the colors and textures of both the music and the text. 

Alas, Michael Tilson Thomas was not on hand to participate in the resounding success of this production of L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Originally scheduled to conduct these performances, MTT was obliged to bow out in order to schedule an earlier date for his cardiac surgery, which, I am told, went well. MTT’s absence, however, necessitated more changes than just that of a conductor. The original program for these performances included Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s Fludde. This, however, had to be dropped. In its place was a lot of, well, filler. Pianist John Wilson played excerpts from Debussy’s Children’s Corner and the composer’s La Plus que lente. Four soloists from the SF Symphony performed a movement from Gabriel Fauré’s Quartet No. 1 in C minor; and pianist Peter Grunberg and mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson performed Debussy’s World War I patriotic piece, Noel des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons. An excerpt from Ravel’s Mother Goose, rounded out the filler that formed the first half of these programs. Quite a few audience members chose to skip most or all of the first half fillers to arrive in time to hear L’Enfant et les sortileèges. I can’t say that I blame them. Even Britten’s Noah’s Fludde couldn’t have held its own opposite this absolutely magical production of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges.