Thursday, 5 December 2013

Ravel's operas

Royal College of Music, London
4 December 2013

The opening of L'Enfant et les sortileges, from Glyndebourne in 1987. From here.

The important half of the evening was a complete triumph, and the lighter half didn't pall.

The ambition of the Royal College of Music is impressive. Ravel’s short operas pose enormous difficulties for production teams. L’Heure espagnole is a farce, the most difficult of theatrical genres; L’Enfant et les sortileges requires animated furniture and animals.

The farce wasn't funny, which is the same as to say it was a disaster, but that would be extremely unfair to everyone involved. It was pleasant enough and raised a smile occasionally, which is more than many musical comedies manage. And best of all it was brief, so didn't have time to become tedious.

Straight farce is difficult enough; musical farce, where the music and performers must match each other perfectly, seems impossible, though Mozart certainly managed it sometimes. The basic plot is a good one, revolving Feydeau-esque around sex, so that'll never become outdated.

I think one problem lies in the dialogue, which is apparently funnier in French than in translation. Another is that despite the sex, the work does rely upon national and class stereotypes that no longer work. But director James Bonas introduced his own faults. A fat old banker really does require at least grotesque makeup and a fat suit, humble though such visual jokes are. And the work is incredibly sexy. With such an attractive young cast, surely some sex appeal could have been possible?

The composer claimed to have created amusing music, which would indeed be pioneering, but I didn't notice it. In fact the music didn't seem especially distinctive, though it would have helped if conductor Michael Roswell had injected some sparkle into the orchestra. Perhaps on another night, he did.

Thankfully Ravel (and Roswell) was fully inspired for L'Enfant. The second scene, in the garden, is genuinely chilling, and contrasts with the daft humour of the first scene, as objects come to life.

I find it odd that the only great dramas I know of successfully depicting childhood are music dramas, specifically this one and Humperdinck's Hänsel und Gretel. Perhaps the added artificiality of opera makes these children, always played by adult women, believable.

Enchantment, yearning, fear, sex, violence, humour, pathos... it's all here in Colette's libretto, and Ravel enhances the text with some of his finest music, appealing and wonderfully direct. Of course, as with Humperdinck's work, this is intended for an audience that recalls childhood, rather than an audience of children. In both cases I suspect many audience members don't notice (or repress) the conclusion that these theatrical children are us, that we're not so far removed from the anxieties of childhood as we believe.

The creative team excelled themselves in bringing all this to life, and if anything oversold the moral by having most of the animals and objects wearing adult Edwardian clothing. But emphasising the social aspects of this masterpiece is not really a bad thing.

In both operas, the singing, and for the most part acting, was superb. If the farce was stillborn, I don't think this was a comment on the singing actors, who did their best to administer musical CPR.

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