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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (1917-1925) [48:00]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
L'Heure Espagnole (1907-1909) [52:00]
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sian Edwards
WARNER MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT 50-51865-4314-2-8 [100:00]


Experience Classicsonline

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (1917-1925) [48:00]
The Child – Cynthia Buchan (mezzo)
His Mother & The Cat – Fiona Kimm (mezzo)
The Tom Cat & The Grandfather Clock – Malcolm Walker (baritone)
The Armchair & A Tree – François Loup (bass)
The Louis XV Chair & The Bat – Hyacinth Nicholls (mezzo)
The Tea Pot, The Little Old Man (Arithmetic) & The Frog – Thierry Dran (tenor)
The Fire & The Nightingale – Nan Christie (soprano)
A Shepherd – Jady Pearl (contralto)
A Shepherdess – Carol Smith (soprano)
The Princess – Harolyn Blackwell (soprano)
The Squirrel – Anna Steiger (soprano)
The Little Owl – Alison Hagley (soprano)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Simon Rattle
Stage designs: Maurice Sendak
Stage director: Frank Corsaro
Video direction: Tom Gutteridge
rec. September 1987, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, UK
L'Heure Espagnole (1907-1909) [52:00]
Concepcion – Anna Steiger (soprano)
Ramiro – François Le Roux (baritone)
Torquemada – Rémy Corazza (tenor)
Gonzalve – Thierry Dran (tenor)
Don Inigo Gomez – François Loup (bass)
London Philharmonic Orchestra/Sian Edwards
Stage designs: Maurice Sendak
Stage director: Frank Corsaro
Video direction: Dave Heather
rec. September 1987, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, UK
Soundtrack: LPCM stereo
Regions: 2, 3, 4 & 5
Picture: 4:3 (NTSC)
Subtitles: English
WARNER MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT 50-51865-4314-2-8 [100:00]
It’s good to have Ravel’s two one-act operas on a single DVD, especially when the stage designs – by U.S. author and illustrator Maurice Sendak – are as good as this and the music is provided by Glyndebourne’s house band, the London Philharmonic. UK viewers may have seen these performances when they were first aired by BBC TV in 1987; L’Enfant is shown sans audience and appears to be lip-synced, whereas L’Heure is taken from a live performance, complete with applause and curtain calls.
There is much more choice for those who just want CDs of these ‘lyric fantasies’, although couplings do vary. Sir Simon Rattle has recorded L’Enfant and Ma Mère l’Oye in Berlin – review – and I remember André Previn and the LSO’s first version with real affection (EMI Classics, nla). I have yet to hear their 1997 DG remake, also coupled with Ma Mère l’Oye (DG 457 5892 3). And don’t forget the usually dour Lorin Maazel, who directs the French radio band in sparkling performances of both one-acters (DG Originals 449 7692 2).
As far as DVDs are concerned this Glyndebourne disc is the only one in the catalogue at the moment. More’s the pity, as these two works really deserve to be seen as well as heard. Indeed, I remember an enchanting production of L’Enfant at Covent Garden in the late 1980s, with vibrant sets by David Hockney. At first glance Sendak’s designs are less colourful, but the costumes – if that’s the right word for singers decked out as armchairs, grandfather clocks and garden creatures – are a delightful mix of drawing-room elegance and cartoonish exaggeration.
Elegance is certainly the keynote in the opera’s preamble – presented without music – in which we see a well-dressed Edwardian family assembled for a photograph, only to have the first shots disrupted by the sailor-suited brat: played by Cynthia Buchan. The music only begins when garishly painted stage ‘flats’ – presumably generated in the TV studio – slide away to reveal the child’s nursery. It’s a deft piece of visual trickery, creating a strong 3D effect that draws the audience into the room. It’s not a new technique – Disney used it to great effect in The Jungle Book – but it works a treat.
Video director Tom Gutteridge opts for wide-angle shots most of the time, which I tend to prefer in filmed opera, but then there isn’t a great deal to see at any one time. The stage is rather gloomy – more on that later – and the picture isn’t particularly sharp, but then that’s what you’d expect from a video of this vintage. The real surprise is the PCM sound, which is exceptionally full and detailed. It’s a real joy to listen to, Ravel’s colourful orchestrations – and the voices – very well caught. That said, I am no fan of lip-syncing – singers don’t always keep up and you can see their throat muscles aren’t being worked – and that invariably leads to a curious ‘deadness’ or sense of detachment at times.
That’s not as serious as it sounds, and I found it bothered me less and less as the opera progressed. Cynthia Buchan is clear and even-toned as the spoilt child, although she clearly isn’t a boy. François Loup and Hyacinth Nicholls are suitably indignant as the abused Armchair and Louis XV Chair respectively, Malcolm Walker particularly panic-inducing as the demented Grandfather Clock, damaged pendulum lolling from its case like a yellow tongue. The stage action is all very deftly managed, one set of character dances/duets dovetailing neatly with the next. The ever-so-genteel Tea Pot (Thierry Dran) and Chinese Cup (Louise Winter) are wittily done, Dran’s accented English entirely appropriate here.
Given their unwieldy ‘costumes’ characters move with considerable grace, every step neatly choreographed. I imagine there are dancers inside some of them, the singers voicing their parts where necessary. It’s all very fluid and pleasing to the eye, although some may find the cutting between shots a trifle fussy at times. Occasionally the action becomes repetitive; for instance, the child flails around too much in his confrontation with the Fire, imperiously sung by Nan Christie. As for the flames, they are peculiar orange flashes that wouldn’t look out of place on an early Dr Who set.
Now for a word or two about Sendak’s sets. His murkier, shadowy staging couldn’t be further from the bright primary colours of Hockney’s more conventional production. Sendak’s view of this dream/fantasy is perhaps more psychological, the child alone in the world, oppressed by the overwhelming darkness. The Shepherd and Shepherdess from the child’s damaged book are part of this half-lit world, the sinuous music of this fleeting pastoral suitably dreamlike. Here and elsewhere one can only marvel at the extraordinary range and variety of Ravel’s orchestral palette, the colours carefully blended and applied with the lightest of strokes.
The boy’s nightmare is pierced by brighter, happier dreams of his beloved Princess – sung with liquid loveliness by Harolyn Blackwell – who appears surrounded by swirls of soft gold mist. In a clever cinematic touch the child appears as if in split-screen, powerless to prevent the tale’s inevitable end. It’s a simple device, and an effective one, Colette’s perfumed prose mirrored in what must surely be some of Ravel’s most fragrant music. Hearing Rattle’s finely shaded reading of this score has certainly tempted me to explore his Berlin account, even though he doesn’t always phrase as naturally as he did in his earlier career. No quibbles here, though, the LPO sounding as fresh and spontaneous as one could hope for.
Even in the more animated music of the arithmetic lesson – led by an old man who looks like a bug-eyed character from that strip cartoon, The Katzenjammer Kids. Speaking of cartoons, the confusion of coloured numbers – another TV touch – reminds me of Disney’s Fantasia, the whirling images carefully synced with the music. All good fun, I suppose, but it looks a trifle amateurish now. As for the onomatopoeic duet and dance of the cat-suited feline and a masked man in top-hat it all seems a bit louche for this fairytale setting. Still, it’s part of Sendak’s darker, more brooding visual style, which clearly embraces a whole range of cultural references.
The painted slides are used to draw us out into the darkened garden, where François Loup’s tortured Tree awaits. And while we’re on the subject of references, this forbidding space could just as easily be found in a creepy horror flick by Tim Burton or Wes Craven, the wounded creatures more Dahl than Disney. There’s no cosy anthropomorphism here; indeed, the suave dance tunes and duets – Louise Winter doubling as The Dragonfly, Nan Christie as the full-throated Nightingale – remind us that the composer’s direct, more innocent idiom doesn’t always sit comfortably with Sendak’s knowing visuals. Paradoxically, though, I found this constant friction added to my enjoyment of this production, not least because of the strangeness it imparts to this multi-layered tale.
Redemption is at hand, though, and Ravel points us in that direction with music of reassuring warmth and richness. Yet even after the boy’s redemptive act – binding the injured squirrel’s paw – he is still seen alone at the centre of a darkened stage, waking only to his mother’s gentle touch. So not as simple and unequivocal a view as we are used to, but Sendak’s is certainly a most intriguing alternative.
Ravel’s earlier opera, L’Heure Espagnole, seems much less popular than L’Enfant. True, it doesn’t have the transparent loveliness of the later work but it is a rewarding piece nonetheless. Sendak’s clock-dominated set is much jollier than that of L’Enfant, but then it’s an altogether lighter piece, centred on the amorous adventures of clock-maker Torquemada’s wife Concepcion (Anna Steiger). It’s a simple set, the watch-maker’s shop centre-stage and Concepcion’s bedroom a balcony top left. The hapless muleteer Ramiro is played and sung with obvious relish by François Le Roux, Francois Loup the delightfully foppish banker, Don Inigo Gomez, and Thierry Dran the wimpish poet Gonzalve.
The stage action is deftly managed and Dave Heather’s video direction is unfussy. Particularly impressive are the clockwork figures – all human – that emerge from time to time, brightly painted and very well choreographed. Sian Edwards and the LPO make the most of this music, which has its fair share of music-hall moments - cue the bass drum. As with L’Enfant the sound is full and warm, and there’s a welcome sense of atmosphere as well. The audience certainly loved it, as the extended applause amply demonstrates.
Apart from some issues with L’Enfant I found this a most attractive pairing. There are no duds among the singers, video direction is generally fine and the LPO make the most of Ravel’s delicious scores. L’Enfant in particular looks rather dated though, so new productions – preferably on Blu-Ray – would be most welcome. Any takers?
Dan Morgan


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