Curtis Institute Fashions a Magical L’Enfant et les sortilèges

United StatesUnited States Ravel, Boulez: Soloists, members of Curtis Opera Theatre, Curtis Symphony Orchestra/Corrado Rovaris & Conner Gray Covington (conductors), Christopher Mirto (stage director), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 9.10.2016. (BJ)

RavelL’Enfant et les sortilèges

Even in the days before I came to recognize the greatness of Ravel’s oeuvre as a whole, L’Enfant et les sortilèges was a work I particularly loved. The impact of the enchanting score and of Colette’s touching story was reinforced by my first acquaintance with Ernest Ansermet’s classic recording, and the staging of the transition to the garden scene—in an Oxford University Opera Club production that I was lucky enough to attend during my student days—remains, almost six decades later, one of the most magical experiences in all my years attending opera performances. (I wonder, by the way, whether anyone has ever done the work in a double bill with Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen—that could be a treat indeed.)

The words “enchanting” and “magical” are both, I am happy to say, appropriate in a review of the Curtis Opera Theatre and Curtis Symphony Orchestra’s collaborative presentation of L’Enfant. Corrado Rovaris led an orchestral account of the score that did full justice alike to its superfine delicacy, its wit, and its occasional explosive moments. I suppose the performance might have been termed “semi-staged”: there were no sets, but the singers wore a range of costumes that were also witty and attractive. Stage director Christopher Mirto, moreover, utilized the front of the Verizon Hall platform—and for the appearance of the Princess, one of the upper levels behind it—for a variety of stage business that was at once witty and imaginative.

Strong contributions from all of the cast, including Kendra Broom in the central role of the Child, Dennis Chmelensky as the Clock, Emily Pogorelc as the Fire, Elena Perroni as the Princess, Adam Kiss as the Tree, Ashley Milanese as the Nightingale, and Patrick Wilhelm and Anastasia Sidorova as the duetting black and white cats, offered similar vocal and dramatic pleasures.

There was only one plot point that Mirto’s direction failed to make clear. Toward the end, I doubt whether anyone in the audience unacquainted with the work could have understood—except from the program note—that the Child was redeeming himself by ministering to the wounded squirrel: it looked as if he was attending to a wound of his own.

(A parallel to that lack of clarity could be drawn with what happened, or rather what didn’t happen, a few hours later in the presidential debate. The Republican candidate’s stated ambition to be a president for ‘all the people’ sorted ill with his inveterate contempt for elements of American society including Mexican immigrants, Muslims, and taxpayers, not to mention women: an incongruity that surely might have been made more clearly explicit.)

Well, the missed opportunity in the Ravel was a tiny blemish in an overwhelmingly positive experience. A scheduling conflict prevented me from hearing the composer’s orchestration of Musorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at the end of the program, though in any case I have to confess that I was not sorry to miss a work whose somewhat gaudy brilliance would suffer from near-juxtaposition with the supremely elegant lightness and beauty of the L’Enfant score. I did stay long enough to hear a very cogent performance, gracefully led by Curtis’s conducting fellow Conner Gray Covington, of Boulez’s Notations. Originally for piano, the four pieces were written very early in the composer’s career, but their orchestral transformations and revisions continued to occupy him for several decades. The rhythmically ingenious second piece seemed to me the most successful, but all four provided welcome stimulation for ear and mind.

Bernard Jacobson

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