Ravel’s Whimsical Melange of Animals and Teacups

United StatesUnited States Ravel, L’ enfant et les sortileges: Opera d’arte, Kenneth Shaw (artistic director), Amy Johnson (associate artistic director), Brett Scott (music director), Kathryn Illis (production design). University of Cincinnati, College-Conservatory of Music. Cohen Family Studio Theatre, Cincinnati, OH. 21.2.2014 (RDA)

 A child throws a tantrum…breaks a chair, a teacup, and a few other things in his nursery, only to find that the broken objects he has damaged all come to life. The room then turns into an outdoor environment replete with singing animals and flowers that shun the little boy because of his destructiveness. When the child cries out “Maman,” the animals turn on him to pay retribution. A melee ensues, and a little squirrel is injured. In an act of kindness, the child rescues it and bandages its broken paw. Moved by his act of kindness, the animals forgive him and lead him back to his Maman as the little opera comes to an end.

 In the course of writing L’enfant et les sortileges, Ravel worked fitfully, before Raoul Ginsburg (the legendary Montecarlo Grand Opera impresario) encouraged the composer to complete it; Ravel finally put pen to paper and delivered a companion piece to L’heure espagnole, his other one-act opera, and the double premiere took place in 1925, with Victor de Sabata conducting.

 The score to L’enfant is a delightful repast for anyone willing to open mind and ears to Ravel’s catalogue of between-the-lines musical insider jokes. Whimsy abounds, with ersatz chinoisseries, pseudo-Wagnerian harmonic transgressions, Stravinsky neo-Russian “isms” and American jazz, all bouncing and colliding with each other with impish glee. At certain moments, one could swear old Maurice is poking Gallic fun at himself, as well as Debussy, Poulenc, Les Six and heavens knows who else. Snippets of his and others’ compositions appear—some barely kernels of musical ideas, others from his well-worn bag of tricks.

 At the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, directors Kenneth Shaw and Amy Johnson must have had the time of their lives shaping this multi-layered musical tapestry into a cohesive, fun feast for the eye and ear. The young singers did well by the direction—never forced, never over-acting, and ultimately fully convincing as singing cats, trees, birds, squirrels, frogs, chairs, arithmetical figures, crockery.

 The outlandish, oversized scenery-turned-into-costumes was the creative work of students from the Design, Architecture and PlanningSchool, led by the gifted Kathryn Illis. Delightful and uncomplicated by unwanted mannerisms, the cast of about twenty are uniformly good as singers and actors. Two very fine, distinctive and very promising voices rang through: one, the young mezzo-soprano Annalise Dzwoncyzk, whose rich sound and honest acting made for a compelling Child in the Friday evening cast, and Cody Quattlebaum, a fine young bass-baritone, seemingly on musical and vocal steroids, who convinced us of his comical malfunction as a grandfather clock.

 For Ravel, who wrote the opera after returning from driving an ambulance in the killing fields of Flanders, Colette’s libretto proved to be the perfect antidote to post-war existential despair. For some listeners today, consigned as they are to living in the present, the sweet sensibilities of Ravel’s opera might be less than palatable. On the other hand, I find its sentiments about coexistence with our fellow beings an energizing antidote to 21st-century cynicism.

Rafael de Acha