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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937
L'enfant et les sortilèges
(1925) [44:22]
Ma Mère L’Oye [28:29]

L’Enfant - Magdalena Kožena
Le Feu, La Princesse, Le Rossignol - Annick Massis
Une Pastourelle, La Chauve-souris, La Chouette - Mojca Erdmann
La Bergère, La Chatte, L’Ecureuil, Un Patre - Sophie Koch
Maman, La Tasse Chinoise, La Libellule - Nathalie Stutzmann
La Theriere, Le Petet Vieillard, La Reinette - Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
L’Horloge Comtoise, Le Chat - François Le Roux
Le Fauteuil, Un Arbre - José van Dam
Berlin Radio Choir
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. 24-28 September 2008, Philharmonie, Berlin
EMI CLASSICS 2 64197 2 [72:58]

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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937
L'enfant et les sortilèges
(1925) [45:49]
Shéhérazade (1903) [18:30]
L’Enfant - Julie Boulianne (mezzo)
Maman, La Libellule, L’Ecureuil - Geneviève Després (mezzo)
La Tasse chinoise, Un Patre, La Chatte - Kirsten Gunlogson (mezzo)
La Theiere, Le Petit Vieillard, La rainette - Philippe Castagner (tenor)
L’Orloge comtoise, Le Chat - Ian Greenlaw (baritone)
Le Fauteuil, Un Arbre - Kevin Short (bass-baritone)
La Princesse, Le Chauve-souris - Agathe Martel (soprano)
Le Feu, Le Rossignol - Cassandre Prévost (soprano)
La Bergère, Une Pastourelle, La Chouette - Julie Cox (soprano)
Members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, Chattanooga Boys Choir,
Members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus
Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Alastair Willis
Julie Boulianne (mezzo) (Shéhérazade)
rec. 5 December 2006 (L'enfant et les sortilèges) and 17 June 2007 (Shéhérazade)
NAXOS 8.660215 [64:19]

Experience Classicsonline

L’Enfant et les Sortilèges occupied Ravel intermittently for some eight years but was completed only just in time for its first performance at Monte-Carlo in March 1925. The libretto is by Colette (1873-1954), author of Gigi, a novel later adapted into the Lerner and Lowe musical. It is an opera like no other. The title cannot be satisfactorily translated. Naxos call it The Child and the Spells, which is not bad, but the word sortilèges implies witchcraft, incantation, charms, in short, too many things, and those too subtle, to be able to be rendered into snappy English as the title of an opera. The central character is a child – the text tells us very early on that it’s a boy – who, already in a bad mood and not wanting to do his homework, responds to his mother’s scolding by trashing the room. The objects around him – the armchair, a teapot and cup, even the shepherds and shepherdesses painted on the wallpaper – come to life and reproach him further. Later, in the garden, he finds that even the animals have the power of speech and, once they recognise him as the cruel little boy with the penknife, turn against him. In the scuffle a squirrel is wounded, and when the animals see the child bandage the injured paw they realise that there is good in him after all. The opera closes with a chorus of forgiveness and redemption, whereupon the child is relieved to see his mother emerge from the house.

The premier recording dates from 1947 and is conducted by Ernest Bour. There are others conducted by Ansermet and Maazel, and at least two more recent ones, from Previn and Dutoit, which I have not heard. Two new readings now appear at the same time.

Rattle’s Berlin performance boasts a star-studded case. When the Child’s voice enters, after the ultra-refined oboe and solo double bass introduction, it seems surprisingly close. It is also very beautiful, unsurprisingly given that the singer is Magdalena Kožená. Sadly, however – and here I must deal right away with the major reservation I have about this performance – though she sings so beautifully, and the voice itself is so glorious that one is almost seduced, she could never be taken for a bored, truculent child. I fear that the great Nathalie Stutzmann is miscast too. Her rich, highly coloured voice is, in other repertoire, a joy, but here, as a mother scolding her child for his laziness, the vibrato gets seriously in the way of the character. Another great name amongst the cast, and a marvellous singer of Ravel, is that of José van Dam. He is suitably lugubrious as the Tree reproaching the child for the wounds he has inflicted with his penknife, but earlier on, as the Armchair, he is often too loud, louder than the score asks for, and some exaggerated gestures bring his portrayal perilously close to hamming. Annick Massis is not totally at ease, despite Rattle’s fairly sedate tempo, in the coloratura passages assigned to the Fire, but she is excellent as the Princess. What a pity, though, that in this, one of the most passionate moments in the opera, one is more than ever disappointed by Kožená.  The Child dreams of taking his sword to save the Princess, having himself put her in peril by tearing up the book in which she appears. With Kožená this could be any operatic hero, as it also could in the exquisite lament which follows, Toi, le coeur de la rose, featuring, in this performance, with a couple of sentimental pauses. Admittedly, this passage is, as the French say, délicat; it is difficult to communicate the child’s sadness without adopting too adult a tone. Nadine Sautereau, for Ernest Bour, succeeds perfectly though, as she also does in the exchanges with the Princess, where her excitement is very childlike and all the more touching for that.

The smaller roles are generally well taken. No children’s choir is named in the booklet, but whoever they are they manage their arithmetic lesson better than those on any other recording, and the main chorus, trained by Simon Halsey, is superb, though so clear and so clearly recorded that their animal noises in the garden are sadly lacking in atmosphere and magic. The Berlin Philharmonic, predictably, play like gods, but magic does seem to be lacking amidst the sheen. I don’t feel much in the way of dramatic continuity either; the work doesn’t really feel like a theatre piece in this performance, all the more surprising given that the recordings were made live. Rattle’s approach is highly, overtly expressive when so often the music wants to be left alone to speak for itself. That, and the interpretation of the title role are the two chief reasons why, for this listener at least, this performance fails to take wing.

If this list of disappointments were not enough, the other element in short supply is comedy. In one of my favourite scenes, the Teacup and the Teapot dance a foxtrot. Their absurd spoken exchanges before the dance – “How’s your mug?” asks the Wedgwood piece. “Rotten!” replies his china partner – should be hilarious, but the comic timing is fallible here. Once the singing starts, Stutzmann is again disappointing and, presumably encouraged by the conductor, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt overacts terribly, complete with a horrible falsetto whine, fortissimo, near the end. This is actually marked piano in the score, and I wonder why these performers thought they knew better than Ravel. I wish things were better on the Naxos disc, but sadly they are not; what is more, the tempo is so slow and, surprisingly for an American performance, the rhythm so flaccid, that one wonders if the two could actually dance a foxtrot to it at all. The brainless frog, near the end, should be funnier than this, too. On the whole, though, I prefer the Naxos performance, even if most of the voices would be better suited to Verdi or Puccini than to Ravel’s intimate world. Julie Boulianne sounds no more childlike than Kožená, her voice too big and mature, too round and full, though she sings more simply and naturally like a child than Kožená seems to want to do. The arithmetic lesson is cautious indeed, in spite of a good response from the children, at least in the early part of the scene. There are some excellent things here, however. Geneviève Després is the only singer who delivers Mother’s first words as the composer requests them, affectionately. The Child’s arioso is sung with a simple tenderness, expressing his wistful sadness in a way that makes one forget, for a while, the too womanly voice. The scene with the Princess rises to perhaps the most passionate climax of any version I have heard, thrilling stuff. Cassandre Prévost, no more successful than Rattle’s soloist as the Fire, and at an equally cautious tempo, is stunning as the Nightingale in the garden scene. And then there is the orchestra which, whilst never sounding exactly French, does have that strange mixture of eloquence and quirky personality that used to distinguish French orchestras. I much prefer their sound to that of the Berlin Philharmonic in this work, and Alastair Willis, a name new to me, takes the work in a single breath, and that in spite of one or two questionable speeds. He and his orchestra are particularly successful at bringing out the extraordinary variety of noises Ravel manages to include beneath the soaring, singing violin line in the oh, so modern sounding Frogs’ Dance, perhaps the most original passage in the whole work.

Simon Rattle’s reading is accompanied by an altogether too knowing performance of the complete Mother Goose ballet, refined and sophisticated once again, but with little sense of wonder. The Naxos coupling is another matter: it would be a pity to miss this outstanding performance of  Shéhérazade. Julie Boulianne’s voice is ideally suited to these ravishing songs, and only a slight tendency to spread on strong, held notes very occasionally disappoints. The orchestral accompaniment is quite superb, meticulously detailed and convincing, and sustained even in the daringly slow tempo for the final song.

If the Berlin performance is superbly sung and played, it remains, for me, an imperfect realisation of the opera. The Nashville performance, on the other hand, features less distinguished singers, but there is more operatic atmosphere, and more magic, too. But neither performance would qualify as a first choice for this wonderful work. Neither would Ernest Bour’s marvellous reading, currently available on Testament. The cast is almost exclusively French, and recognisably so, both by the vocal timbre and by the almost uncanny clarity of diction typical of French singers of that period, alas, rapidly disappearing. Individual voices stick out of the French Radio Choir like sore thumbs and the orchestra sounds as if it is playing in the next room, but this is a wonderful historical document, a perfect, indeed indispensable supplement. I grew up with Ansermet (Decca, currently available on Eloquence), and love it still. With hindsight one now hears it as a little chaotic from time to time, though it is a lovely theatrical experience and there are some marvellous individuals in the cast. But it is Lorin Maazel (DG), of all people, who most successfully evokes this very particular world, a world, let it be said, which is not the world of real children, but that of children seen through the fastidious and prism-like eyes of Maurice Ravel. The part of the Child is taken by Françoise Ogéas, and some might think she goes too far, in the opening scene, in adopting the vocal manner of a child. Not I, though. This is the one to have.

 

William Hedley

see also review by Dominy Clements

 

 

 


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