05 Aug 2012

Glyndebourne : Ravel Double Bill L'enfant et les sortilèges, L'heure espagnole

Surrealist fantasy with wit and style! L'heure espagnole and L'enfant et les sortilèges, the Ravel Double Bill at Glyndebourne, mixes charm, intelligence and nightmare.

The audience applauded the scenery, but this time the praise was sincere. Ravel's music and ideas come alive. I'm tempted to say, "beyond our wildest dreams", because dreams release the creative imagination. Ravel begins L'enfant et les sortilèges with strange mock-orientalism, to emphasize the alien nature of what is to come. The child (Khatouna Gadelia) throws a tantrum, reflected in the stamping ostinato in the music, and the repetitive, angular vocal line. "Méchant! Méchant! Méchant!". Table, chair and Maman's skirts loom menacingly, overwhelming the child. This is what it feels to be little, dwarfed by the world of adults. The child rebels and rips his room apart. But the objects he wrecks have feelings, too.

"L'enfant et les sortilèges" says director Laurent Pelly "lasts about 45 minutes, but has the depth of an opera of three or four hours". (read the interview in Opera Today here). Ravel's music is extraordinarliy vivid, but his concepts don't easily translate into visual images. Pelly, however, is a master at bringing abstract ideas to life, as anyone who has seen his Glyndebourne Humperdinck Hansel und Gretel would know. The Teapot and the Chinese cup dance, their "human" bodies exposed beneath the hard exteriors of their form. Ravel glories in mad chinoiserie, which conductor Kazushi Ono plays up with manic relish. The words aren't real but dadaist invention, even in Colette's original. At Glyndebourne the surtitles flash "Sessue Hayakawa" .Since this Glyndebourne production is a co-production with Seiji Osawa's Saito Kinen Festival, it will be seen by Japanese audiences who will get the joke (and can read the nonsense "Chinese" writing). Hayakawa was a Hollywood megastar from the 1920's, who subtly subverted western stereotypes of Asian people. Ravel is sending up the whole notion of western attitudes to the East.

And by exploring exotic genres, Ravel expanded the palette of mainstream western music. Even in Colette's original French text,the Teapot and teacup sing in cod-English "Sir, I punch your nose. I knock out you, stupid chose (thing)". Shepherds and Shepherdesses jump out of the wallpaper the Child has defaced, singing of bizarrely coloured dogs and lambs. Everything safe and familiar is transformed. Ravel writes mock-pastoral,while the pastorals do a solemn mock baroque dance. Visions of Le petit Trianon! Revolution is afoot. The Fire explodes, threatening to engulf the room. Kathleen Kim shoots out of the fireplace in a structure that resembles flame. Kim also sings the Nightingale and the Princess. As theatre, the Fire is a dramatic stunning device, but also reminds us this Child has unleashed dangerous forces.

Some of Ravel's concepts are so abstract that they're a test of any director. Arithmetic, for example, which is so important to Ravel that he embeds the formal logic of mathematics into his music (The connection with L'heure espagnole is obvious) In the 1987 Glyndebourne production, the The Little Old Man who represents Arithmetic was surrounded by cardboard cut-outs of numbers. Pelly, however, brings out the true inner significance. The Child has rebelled against maths homework, and now the Glyndebourne chorus appears as identikit Child to mock him. The formality of rows and series - is this a droll in-joke about Ravel's music, and the music which followed? Kazushi Ono defines the structure with clarity, and the chorus moves with precision. Surrealism liberates the imagination, but art needs an element of intellectual rigour,

Sofas, chairs and clocks, Cats, animals and insects, all confront the Child with their human-ness. In the Garden, adult values no longer dominate. Here, the Child will learn the true nature of humanity Pelly, who designed the costumes, doesn't trivialise the "animals" but shows them as realistically as is possible (given that Bats and Squirrels don't sing). So different from the twee "animals" in Melly Still's The Cunning Little Vixen (review here). Here, animals are treated with dignity, for that's the message of the opera, that no-one is supreme in this universe.The Glyndebourne chorus transform into trees, each one individualized. Even "statues" move. The darkness now is less nightmare than transformative dream. At last the Child recognizes that selfishness is cruel. He caged and tortured the Squirrel, but now looks into her eyes and sees things throgh her perspective. The Squirrel was sung by Stéphanie d'Oustrac, who also sings the Cat. At last, the Child can be a child again and call "Maman! up towards the lighted window. Laurent Pelly's L'enfant et les sortilèges is a masterwork of emotional intelligence and sensitivity, absolutely informed by Ravel's music.

Stéphanie d'Oustrac also sang the main role of Concepción in L'heure espagnole. Elliot Madore sang Ramiro the Muleteer who carries clocks around so effortlessly that he becomes a Grandfather Clock in L'enfant et les sortilèges (where he also sings the Tom Cat). This constant role-changing might stress singers, but is very much part of the meaning of both operas, so they all performed well. Torquemada the clockmaker thinks life can be regulated by clockwork, but as his wife discovers, things don't always go as planned. François Piolino sang Torquemada, and also the Teapot, the Frog and the Old Man of Arithmetic). The staging of L'heure espagnole seems relatively dated compared with the sheer genius of Pelly's L'enfant et les sortilèges, but its clutter also suggests why we need clocks (and Arithmetic, and indeed of the mechanisms of the world around us).

This production will be screened from 19th August in cinemas and online, and will eventually be released on DVD.

Anne Ozorio