L'heure espagnole/L'enfant et les sortilèges
A Double Shot of Operatic Ravel
Maurice Ravel, master orchestrator, wrote two operas in his life—one as a relatively young man still developing his signature (L'heure espagnole, which premiered in 1911), the other (L'enfant et les sortilèges), which debuted in 1926 when he was at the peak of his powers, in control of unconventional textures and daring colorations.
Both are enormously entertaining works, particularly as rendered by Lorin Maazel on this definitive two-disc set, which was recorded in 1958 and 1965 and features a who's who of French opera talent of the 1960s—Jane Berbié, Jean Giraudeau, Gabriel Bacquier. Hewing to French opera tradition, these singers value a precise rendering of text over subtleties of tone. They execute some of the more outlandish touches, like the Four Freshman–ish vocal harmonies near the climax of L'heure espagnole, with exaggerated vivacity.
The early opera is a lusty farce. It follows a woman who's desperate to have an extramarital dalliance during the one hour of the week her clockmaker husband is out adjusting the village clocks. Various suitors find themselves hidden inside grandfather clocks and subjected to all sorts of comic trials; in the end, the workman hauling the clocks gets the girl. Ravel (1875–1937) matches the lightheartedness of the story with equally capricious, furtive music that suggests perpetually thwarted lust.
L'enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells) is much more fantastical—its improbable dialogues and surreal pastiches show how Ravel's palette expanded over the years. The story of a naughty child who is suddenly terrorized by the household objects he's abused, this opera begins with a hypnotic woodwind-and-upper-strings figure that suggests the motion of a wobbling top. The libretto, by celebrated author Colette, takes the young boy through all sorts of phantasmagoria (including a haunting riff on multiplication tables) before he acquires the sensitivity of a grown-up. Among the most intense scenes is an exchange between an English coffee mug and a Chinese teacup, in which stereotypical national traits balloon into magnificent and improbable aural fantasias. Though it can be effectively staged, this is one of those imagistic works that's actually more powerful when the visuals are left to the imagination.
Released: 1988, Deutsche Grammophon
Key Tracks: L'heure: Scene 1: "Señor Torquemada"; Scene 21: "Un financier." L'enfant: "Ding Ding Ding Ding," "How's Your Mug?"
Catalog Choice: Daphnis et Chloë, Suite No. 2, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (Leonard Slatkin, cond.).
Next Stop: Cecilia Bartoli: Chant d'Amour
After That: Frederick Delius: Orchestral Works, BBC Symphony (Sir Andrew Davis, cond.)
Book Pages: 633–634