Subscribe to
Opera Today

Receive articles and news via RSS feeds or email subscription.


facebook-icon.png


twitter_logo[1].gif



Plumbago_9780993198359_1.png

9780521746472.png

0810888688.gif

0810882728.gif

Recently in Reviews

Temple Winter Festival: The Tallis Scholars

Hodie Christus natus est. Today, Christ is born! A miracle: and one which has inspired many a composer to produce their own musical ‘miracle’: choral exultation which seems, like Christ himself, to be a gift to mankind, straight from the divine.

A new Hänsel und Gretel at the Royal Opera House

Fairy-tales work on multiple levels, they tell delightful yet moral stories, but they also enable us to examine deeper issues. With its approachably singable melodies, Engelbert Humperdinck's Märchenoper Hänsel und Gretel functions in a similar way; you can take away the simple delight of the score, but Humperdinck's discreetly Wagnerian treatment of his musical material allows for a variety of more complex interpretations.

Bohuslav Martinů – What Men Live By

World premiere recording from Supraphon of Bohuslav Martinů What Men Live By (H336,1952-3) with Jiří Bělohlávek and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra from a live performances in 2014, with Martinů's Symphony no 1 (H289, 1942) recorded in 2016. Bělohlávek did much to increase Martinů's profile, so this recording adds to the legacy, and reveals an extremely fine work.

Berlioz: Harold en Italie, Les Nuits d'été

Hector Berlioz Harold en Italie with François-Xavier Roth and Les Siècles with Tabea Zimmermann, plus Stéphane Degout in Les Nuits d’été from Hamonia Mundi. This Harold en Italie, op. 16, H 68 (1834) captures the essence of Romantic yearning, expressed in Byron's Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage where the hero rejects convention to seek his destiny in uncharted territory.

Rouvali and the Philharmonia in Richard Strauss

It so rarely happens that the final concert you are due to review of any year ends up being one of the finest of all. Santtu-Matias Rouvali’s all Richard Strauss programme with the Philharmonia Orchestra, however, was often quite remarkable - one might quibble that parts of it were somewhat controversial, and that he even lived a little dangerously, but the impact was never less than imaginative and vivid. This was a distinctly young man’s view of Strauss - and all the better for that.

‘The Swingling Sixties’: Stravinsky and Berio

Were there any justice in this fallen world, serial Stravinsky – not to mention Webern – would be played on every street corner, or at least in every concert hall. Come the revolution, perhaps.

Le Bal des Animaux : Works by Chabrier, Poulenc, Ravel, Satie et al.

Belgian soprano Sophie Karthaüser’s latest song recital is all about the animal kingdom. As in previous recordings of songs by Wolf, Debussy and Poulenc, pianist Eugene Asti is her accompanist in Le Bal des Animaux, a delightful collection of French songs about creatures of all sizes, from flea to elephant and from crayfish to dolphin.

The Pity of War: Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall

During the past four years, there have been many musical and artistic centenary commemorations of the terrible human tragedies, inhumanities and utter madness of the First World War, but there can have been few that have evoked the turbulence and trauma of war - both past and present, in the abstract and in the particular - with such terrifying emotional intensity as this recital by Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano at the Barbican Hall.

First revival of Barrie Kosky's Carmen at the ROH

Charles Gounod famously said that if you took the Spanish airs out of Carmen “there remains nothing to Bizet’s credit but the sauce that masks the fish”.

Stanford's The Travelling Companion: a compelling production by New Sussex Opera

The first performance of Charles Villiers Stanford’s ninth and final opera The Travelling Companion was given by an enthusiastic troupe of Liverpudlian amateurs at the David Lewis Theatre - Liverpool’s ‘Old Vic’ - in April 1925, nine years after it was completed, eight after it won a Carnegie Award, and one year after the composer’s death.

Russian romances at Wigmore Hall

The songs of Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov lie at the heart of the Romantic Russian art song repertoire, but in this duo recital at Wigmore Hall it was the songs of Nikolay Medtner - three of which were framed by sequences by the great Russian masters - which proved most compelling and intriguing.

Wolfgang Rihm: Requiem-Strophen

The world premiere recording of Wolfgang Rihm's Requiem-Strophen (2015/2016) with Mariss Jansons conducting the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks and the Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks with Mojca Erdmann, Anna Prohaska and Hanno Müller-Brachmann, from BR Klassik NEOS.

Don Giovanni: Manitoba Opera

Manitoba Opera turned the art of seduction into bloodsport with its 2018/19 season-opener of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, Don Giovanni often walking a razor’s edge between hilarious social commentary and chilling battles for the soul.

Jonathan Miller's La bohème returns to the Coliseum

And still they come. No year goes by without multiple opportunities to see it; few years now go by without my taking at least one of those opportunities. Indeed, I see that I shall now have gone to Jonathan Miller’s staging on three of its five (!) outings since it was first seen at ENO in 2009.

Sir Thomas Allen directs Figaro at the Royal College of Music

The capital’s music conservatoires frequently present not only some of the best opera in London, but also some of the most interesting, and unusual, as the postgraduate students begin to build their careers by venturing across diverse operatic ground.

Old Bones: Iestyn Davies and members of the Aurora Orchestra 'unwrap' Time at Kings Place

In this contribution to Kings Place’s 2018 Time Unwrapped series, ‘co-curators’ composer Nico Muhly and countertenor Iestyn Davies explored the relationship between time past and time present, and between stillness and motion.

Cinderella goes to the panto: WNO in Southampton

Once upon a time, Rossini’s La Cenerentola was the Cinderella among his operatic oeuvre.

It's a Wonderful Life in San Francisco

It was 1946 when George Bailey of Bedford Falls, NY nearly sold himself to the devil for $20,000. It is 2018 in San Francisco where an annual income of ten times that amount raises you slightly above poverty level, and you’ve paid $310 for your orchestra seat to Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

Des Moines: Glory, Glory Hallelujah

A minor miracle occurred as Des Moines Metro Opera converted a large hall on a Reserve Army Base to a wholly successful theatrical venue, and delivered a stunning rendition of Tom Cipullo’s compelling military-themed one act opera, Glory Denied.

In her beginning is her end: Welsh National Opera's La traviata in Southampton

David McVicar’s La traviata for Welsh National Opera - first seen at Scottish Opera in 2008 and adopted by WNO in 2009 - wears its heavy-black mourning garb stylishly.

OPERA TODAY ARCHIVES »

Reviews

22 Nov 2018

About an enfant: Ravel’s Opera about Childhood and Debussy’s Prodigal Son

This recording of Ravel’s second (and last) one-act opera was made during a concert, and -somewhat daringly - with rather close microphone placement. As it turns out, everything went smoothly.

Ravel: L’enfant et les sortilèges; Debussy: L’enfant prodigue, Symphony movement in B Minor (here called Finale)

Ravel: Chloé Briot (Child), Nathalie Stutzmann (Mother, Chinese Cup, Dragonfly), Sabine Devieilhe (Fire, Princess, Nightingale), Jodie Devos (Bat, Owl, Shepherdess), Julie Pasturaud (Small Upholstered Seat, Female Cat, Shepherd), Francois Piolino (English Teapot, Little Old Man, Tree-Frog), Jean-Francois Lapointe (Male Cat, Grandfather Clock), Nicolas Courjat (Wooden-Armed Armchair, Tree)
Debussy: Karina Gauvin (Lia), Roberto Alagna (Azaël), Jean-Francois Lapointe (Siméon), French Radio Chorus, Children’s Chorus, and Orchestra, conducted by Mikko Franck

Erato 9029 589692 [2 CDs] 89 minutes

 

The only thing I minded were some inconsistencies of tuning in the opening two minutes and at the very end. The detailed sonics lack some of the mystery that Stéphane Denève brings out so well at various points in the studio recording of the work, reviewed here. But the clarity of detail also brings ample compensation. The music is conducted with keen stylistic awareness by Mikko Franck, music director of the French radio orchestra that is heard here (and former music director of the Finnish National Opera).

There will probably never be an absolute “best” recording of this remarkable work. It has twenty singing roles divided among eight or so singers, all in a work that lasts some 43 minutes. Characters rarely sing at the same time, and some passages are choral or orchestral. Thus, as simple arithmetic tells us, each role contains only a few minutes of singing!

The singers on this recording characterize their various roles vividly and, in a few cases (Grandfather Clock, Fire), are more precise with the pitches and articulation than are the singers in the Denève recording. I was surprised that the two singers who participate in both the Denève recording and this one (Pasturaud and Piolino) seem even more in command in this concert recording than they already were when they had the advantage of studio conditions and the possibility of multiple retakes. Perhaps the presence of an audience that could understand, without supertitles, the nuances of the text that was being sung, made a difference.

The discovery for me is Sabine Devieilhe, as Fire, Princess, and Nightingale. Her coloratura singing is as close to perfection as humanly possible. Her lyrical singing is no less wondrous. I hope to hear her in much other repertoire soon. (I have read praise of her three recital discs for the French firm Erato.) I must also praise three of the other singers who, like Devieilhe, were not on the Denève recording. The renowned Nathalie Stutzmann brings enormous warmth and seeming spontaneity to her three roles. Jean-François Lapointe takes care to sing, not talk-sing, Grandfather Clock. And, as the Child, Chloé Briot reveals her impressively diverse vocal abilities ever more as the opera unfolds. (Briot has a touch of wobble on sustained notes, but is otherwise perhaps the best Child on any recording.) The four “animals” who speak, near the end of the opera, are members of the French Radio Chorus, and the booklet nicely names them. They do their lines superbly.

The libretto is given complete, including the extensive stage directions, all in the superb old Felix Aprahamian translation. But the latter could use a bit of updating or clarification by now. For example, the character known as La Bergère is translated as The Sofa, which seems to imply a largish object. But the stage directions make clear that this piece of upholstered furniture is smaller than the big armchair (Le Fauteuil, sung by a bass), which of course is why Ravel assigns the role to a higher voice (mezzo-soprano). Perhaps we might call it (or her) a “Small Upholstered Seat.”

In addition to famous older recordings (see the previous review), I should add that there are two different Glyndebourne DVD versions of this opera. Both pair the work with Ravel’s first opera, L’heure espagnole, and both are apparently wonderful in different ways.

The opera comes as part of a 2-CD set, with two works by Debussy. One is another “child” work: Debussy’s The Prodigal Son (1884). Of course, this child is fully grown, for the story is the one in Luke 18 about a son who has left his father and brother and wasted his inheritance, then returns and is forgiven. The other work is a little-known early symphonic movement.

There is much less recorded competition for the Debussy cantata (or, in its alternate title, “operatic scene”) than for Ravel’s opera. And for good reason: it’s an early work, composed to please the professors at the Conservatoire and help win Debussy the Prix de Rome. (It succeeded!) Debussy was pleased enough with it to allow it to be published twenty-four years later. Still, whole chunks of it sound highly conventional. My favorite passage is the opening prelude, which is clearly meant to sound exotic—in the manner of Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, and Balakirev—so as to place the listener in the ancient Middle East.

Whatever the mixed merits of the piece itself, the singing here is magnificent, as one might expect from a project that includes the renowned Roberto Alagna (as the Son). The soprano, Karina Gauvin, sings the role of the mother to perfection. I had heard of Gauvin and will now look for other recordings by her. Lia’s aria, the first vocal number in the work, has been often recorded separately, but surely never better. The famous “Cortège et air de danse,” a self-enclosed orchestral piece likewise sometimes performed apart from the cantata, beautifully conveys the graciousness of family and community life from which the wastrel Azaël has chosen to absent himself.

The vivid sonics capture every detail of this concert performance of L’enfant prodigue. The booklet gives an antiquated singing translation that takes some effort to decode.

There have been at least three previous recordings, including a monophonic one featuring an exemplary French tenor, Henri Legay, and a much more recent one that is part of a 2-CD set of Debussy’s various Prix de Rome compositions, conducted by Hervé Niquet. (The latter set, which comes with a small book, is sponsored by the enterprising Center for French Romantic Music, located at the Palazzetto Bru Zane in Venice.) The best known recording is a 1982 release conducted by Gary Bertini and featuring Jessye Norman, José Carreras, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, all in splendid voice. But I am nearly always happier hearing Francophones singing French, as in the new recording.

The early Debussy symphonic movement in B minor survives only as a piece for piano four-hands and has been recorded several times in that guise. There is no evidence that Debussy ever got around to orchestrating it. The style is remarkably varied: its opening is surprisingly Brahmsian. (For further description, see the chapter that I wrote on French symphonies in the book The Nineteenth-Century Symphony, ed. D. Kern Holoman.) Here the movement is heard in a somewhat dense but workable orchestration by Colin Matthews, conducted rather straightforwardly by Franck. (Naxos has released a recording that uses an orchestration, by American composer-arranger Tony Finno, that feels more playful and exploratory than the Matthews. Finno’s version is made particularly attractive by conductor Jun Märkl’s frequent and apt-feeling changes of tempo.)

The Erato 2-CD set is available at the price of a single CD. It thus represents a remarkable bargain, and nobody will regret snapping it up. If you have never encountered Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, I suggest that you treat yourself to this recording, or to any of the aforementioned ones (including, by all means, the atmospheric Denève). But make sure you read the delightful libretto and detailed stage directions--either beforehand or while listening.

Ralph P. Locke


The above review is a lightly revised version of one that first appeared in American Record Guide and appears here by kind permission.

Ralph P. Locke is emeritus professor of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music. His most recent two books are Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (both Cambridge University Press). Both are now available in paperback, and the second is also available as an e-book.

Send to a friend

Send a link to this article to a friend with an optional message.

Friend's Email Address: (required)

Your Email Address: (required)

Message (optional):