About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Monday, May 11, 2015

L'enfant et les sortileges, truly enchanting

The Chicago Symphony is currently presenting French Reveries & Passions with Esa-Pekka Salonen. We attended the concert last week that included Ravel's Mother Goose Suite,  Debussy's La damoiselle elue, and a very unusual work, an opera by Ravel titled L'enfant et les sortileges, or "The child and the enchantments."

The entire concert was wonderful. Mother Goose was quietly enchanting, and the Debussy was a very interesting piece, using a poem of Dante Gabriel Rossetti that tells the other side of Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven." In "The Raven" a man longs for his lost love who is now in heaven. In La damoiselle elue (The Blessed Damsel) the woman, in heaven, longs for and awaits her lover still on earth. It was an interesting, rarely heard piece, but the piece that really charmed and intrigued me was L'enfant et les sortileges.

This short opera, with a libretto by Colette, tells the story of a young boy, possibly 6 or 7 years old, who doesn't want to do his homework. When his mother finds out, she tells him he must stay in his room until he finishes with only "tea with no sugar and dry toast." After she leaves he has a tantrum in which he smashes the teapot and cup, pokes the pet squirrel in his cage, pulls the cat's tail, knocks over the kettle, swings on the grandfather clock's pendulum and breaks it off, tears up his books and rips the wallpaper with the poker. When he collapses the enchantment begins. The furniture comes alive, singing that it's glad the boy will no longer attack it with his heels. In a series of arias and duets, the various objects express their points of view. Some of these are poignant, while others are quite funny. The CSO not only had supertitles projected onto the stage, but also pictures of which characters were singing at the time. So, for example, when the shepherds and shepherdesses come to life, we saw a silhouette type illustration of them on the screen. Of the eight soloists, only Chloe Briot, who sang the boy, had a single role. The others played several different characters.

The interesting preconcert talk was given by Derek Matson, a dramaturg who works with many Chicago arts groups. Among the insights he shared was that Ravel specified that the teapot must be a black Wedgwood and the cup was a Chinese cup. Mr. Matson explained that a Limoges teapot would be more typical for a French household, but Ravel wanted his teapot to be an American boxer, singing a sort of pidgin English during a foxtrot, while the Chinese cup answers in a French version of Chinese. Manuel Nunez Camelino, the tenor who sang the teapot, was a wonderful actor in all his roles. As the teapot, he used his arm as both the spout and a boxing stance, jabbing now and then.

Another highly unusual duet is the Duo miaule, a duet between the boy's cat and a female cat, sung entirely in miaows. Mr. Matson told his preconcert audience that the first audiences had been outraged by this duet and made so much noise of their own, adding miaows and catcalls, that it was difficult to hear the music. Another of my favorite parts was when the boy discovers that only his mathematics book has survived his rage. "Mathematics" comes to life as an eccentric professor type, singing incorrect equations, and then the children's chorus, representing numbers, streams on stage to join him.

The second part of the opera is more serious, moving into the boy's yard as the moon rises. There the animals confront him with the pain and harm he has done them and finally attack him. He realizes how cruel he has been, and when his squirrel injures his paw, the boy bandages it. This shows the animals that he has learned his lesson and they sing, "he is a good boy."

Until this concert, I didn't know all that much about Ravel. I knew Bolero, of course, and the Mother Goose Suite, Rapsodie Espanole, Daphnis and Chloe, and of course every horn player knows Pavanne for a Dead Princess. I had generally thought of Ravel lumped together with Debussy, both impressionists. With this concert, I realized that Ravel lived further into the 20th century than I had realized. He died in 1937. This charming opera also demonstrated that Ravel was definitely part of 20th century music and is distinctly different than Debussy. At one point he has the chorus speaking their lines in rhythm, like sprechstimme, used by Arnold Schoenberg as well as other 20th century composers. The orchestra includes a lutheal, a hybrid piano invented in the early 20th century. There is whimsy and humor in the musical numbers, as well as experimentation.

Requiring a full orchestra (including the rare lutheal), small chorus, children's chorus, and eight soloists, this an expensive piece for an organization to present. It's too bad because this is a delightful and eye-opening opera.

Here is the cats' duet from the Glyndebourne Opera production:

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