Fascinating Double Bill at Palais Garnier

FranceFrance  Zemlinsky, Ravel: L’Enfant et les Sortilèges: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of Opéra National de Paris, Paul Daniel (conductor), Opéra Garnier, Paris, 11.2.2013 (SRT)


Der Zwerg

The Dwarf – Charles Workman
Infanta – Nicola Beller Carbone
Ghita – Béatrice Uria-Monzon
Don Estoban – Vincent Le Texier

L’Enfant et les Sortilèges

Child – Gaëlle Méchaly
Mother, Chinese Cup, Dragonfly – Cornelia Oncioiu
Bergère, Bat – Valérie Condoluci
Fire, Nightingale – Mélody Louledjian
Chair, Tree – François Lis
Teapot, Frog, Arithmetic – François Piolino

Richard Jones & Antony McDonald (directors)


L'Enfant et Les Sortilèges: Picture Credit: Opera Garnier

L’Enfant et Les Sortilèges: Picture Credit: Opera Garnier

Across town from Khovanshchina, I was also just in time to catch the last performance of a cunningly programmed double bill in the luxurious setting of the Palais Garnier. You wouldn’t normally put Ravel and Zemlinsky in the same sentence, but both L’Enfant et lest Sortilèges and Der Zwerg deal with the theme of childhood and how cruel it can sometimes be. However, while the naughty child in L’Enfant finally learns his lesson and finds forgiveness, the callousness of the young Infanta in Der Zwerg leads only to tragedy and death for the poor, disillusioned dwarf.

L’Enfant was played second, but made a wonderful impression on me. Musically speaking it was excellent, with every part played and sung beautifully, led by Britain’s very own Paul Daniel in the pit. Who would have thought that he could bring out the delicately graded textures of French opera so successfully? This is an ensemble opera par excellence, and the company of singers gave their all in each role. Gaëlle Méchaly gave an endearing performance as the child in what can be a rather irritating role, blending well with her colleagues and refusing to steal the scene. Mélody Louledjian’s coloratura was exceptional as the fire and the nightingale. Among the men François Lis used his lovely baritone voice to great effect as the wounded tree while, at the other end of the scale, François Piolino was a biting and funny Arithmetic teacher and teapot. For L’Enfant, at least, Jones and McDonald were on their best behaviour, evoking each interior scene with a different painted backdrop, and doing so most effectively, though the garden, while helped by some magnificently evocative singing from the chorus, was disappointingly bare. The costumes were excellent too.

However, I couldn’t help but feel that they had blown the budget on L’Enfant and so had little left for Der Zwerg. This staging was static and bare where L’Enfant had been lively and pictorial. Having the Infanta’s playmates dressed in school pinafores worked well in underlining their immaturity, but Jones also reverted to some of his less successful surreal touches with giant stalks of asparagus instead of trees in the Infanta’s garden. Furthermore, the Dwarf himself was played by a puppet, which started off interestingly enough but towards the end I began to find it a rather distancing touch, especially when they began to play with the relationship between the puppet and the singer controlling him. Charles Workman has the right sort of voice for this role, ardent without being exactly lyrical, but the top of the role stretched him and he sounded uncomfortable as the opera drew to its climax. Nicola Beller Carbone sang the Infanta’s brittle music with brilliance and flair, stamping her foot and throwing her toys to underline the character’s childishness, and Béatrice Uria-Monzon was a sympathetic Ghita. Vincent Le Texier sounded gruff and unmusical as the Major Domo, however, and I couldn’t help thinking that, despite the quality of some of the parts, Zemlinsky’s great tragedy of ignorance and heartlessness deserved more than this. Full marks to the orchestra again, though, who produced great sweeps of Romantic sound that were a world away from the delicacy of L’Enfant, reminding us that Zemlinsky was only just around the corner from the sound worlds of Mahler and Schoenberg.

Simon Thompson