United Kingdom Poulenc and Ravel:Stephen Mangan (actor), Members of the Royal Academy of Music, Jean-Baptiste Barrière (video), BBC Symphony Orchestra, Stéphane Denève (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 26.4.2013 (MB)
Poulenc: Les Animaux modèles
Ravel: L’Enfant et les sortilèges
The Child – Rozanna Madylus
Mother, The Dragonfly, The Ottoman – Fiona Mackay
The Bergère – Rosalind Coad
The Chinese Cup/The Female Cat/The Wicker Chair – Saraha Shorter
The Fire/The Nightingale – Jennifer France
The Princess – Sónia Grané
The Bat/Animal – Tereza Gevorgyan
The Owl/The Settle – Helen Bailey
The Squirrel – Irina Loskova
A Shepherdess/The Sofa – Alice Privett
A Shepherd/Animal – Katie Howden
The Armchair – Samuel Queen
The Grandfather Clock/The Tomcat – Samuel Pantcheff
The Teapot (Black Wedgwood) – Ross Scanlon
The Little Old Man (Arithmetic) – Bradley Smith
A Tree – Nicholas Crawley
The Frog – Iain Milne
Animal – Gwilym Bowen
Animal – Andri Björn Róbertsson
A good number of my finest and enjoyable operatic experiences in London over the past few years have come courtesy of our conservatoires rather than our big houses. Royal Academy Opera seems to be on an especial high at the moment, this season having offered excellent performances of both La vera costanza – the best performance I have attended of a Haydn opera anywhere – and Eugene Onegin. An enticing double bill awaits next month: Dido and Aeneas and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse. This evening, however, a good number of familiar voices crossed town to the Barbican, to sing in a concert performance of L’Enfant et les sortilèges, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Stéphane Denève, a highly laudable form of collaboration, which one can only hope will continue.
There is absolutely no need for condescension when treating with these young singers; indeed, their contribution in many respects outclassed that of the orchestra and conductor. Not that, once past some very un-Ravelian imprecision at the opening, there was anything terribly wrong with it, and perhaps I am being grossly unfair, retaining very fond memories of a Berlin performance I heard from the Berlin Philharmonic and Sir Simon Rattle in 2008, but a more luxuriant canvas might well have heightened the sense of fantasy. Denève’s drier approach offered, I suppose, a valid alternative, though I could not help but wonder whether it was in part a response to the thinner tone of the orchestra.
Anyway, the singers did Ravel proud. From such an extensive cast it might seem hyperbole to say that there was not a weak link, but there really was not. Singers, save The Child, centre-stage throughout, came together at the side of the stage for the chorus, whose contributions were notably well directed by Denève, and moved to the front when required for solos. First amongst equals had to be Rozanna Madylus as The Child, impetuous and wide-eyed, as Ravel demands. Equally impressive, if anything more so still, was the star turn offered by Sónia Gráne’s beautifully floated yet splendidly precise Princess; I was delighted to read afterwards in her biography that she is about to join the Berlin Staatsoper, whence I have just returned, as a Young Artist there. It was a pleasure, moreover, to hear light, convincingly ‘French’ voices, with a fine command of language and idiom, from singers such as Ross Scanlon and Samuel Queen. Jean-Baptiste Barrière’s video sequences I found a little on the dull side, too straightforwardly representational, though at least they made a change from his screen-saver-cum-wallpaper contribution to a Philharmonia performance of Wozzeck a few years ago.
Perhaps Denève was simply being ‘considerate’ – not that I think it was necessary – to his soloists, since there was more bite to the first-half performance of Poulenc’s suite from the 1940s ballet, Les Animaux modèles. The opening ‘Le Petit jour,’ offered enticing echoes of Daphnis et Chloé, with a definite ‘French’ quality to the BBC SO’s sound, strings especially, with a vibrato it is difficult not to define as ‘glamorous’. The slight lack of body here was less of a problem; indeed, it arguably added to a sense of idiom, recalling recordings of Poulenc’s own time, some of them involving him. I was less sure about Stephen Mangan’s delivery of contemporary versions of La Fontaine’sfables, all too audibly miked. Surely an actor should be able to project without? The greater part of the audience, however, seemed to be eating out of his hand, so perhaps I am just being grumpy. (Might we not at least, however, progress beyond the idea that employment of a generic ‘Northern’ accent is intrinsically amusing?) ‘Le Lion amoureux’ offered similar sonic ‘glamour’ to the first movement, though brass at times seemed a little loud. Denève’s glittering, unsentimental direction of ‘L’Homme entre deux æges et ses deux maîtresses’ again recalled or, in this context, presaged Ravel, though with a more cinematic bent, whilst the opening gravity of ‘La Mort et la bûcheron’ was finally matched by the elegant, vielle France of Death as a duchess in response. Prokofiev-like spikiness at the opening of ‘Les Deux coqs’ was likewise balanced by the most chic of hen-houses. There is surprising weight, relatively speaking, to the final movement, ‘Le Repas de midi,’ though is that what Poulenc does best? I tended to think it was a bit like going to Bach for slapstick. Fine performances, anyway, for a little-heard score.