‘I don’t want to do my work. I want to go for a walk. I want to eat all the cakes… to shout at everybody!’ Which of us hasn’t felt like this at some point during the past ten weeks? The small child at the centre of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges speaks for us all as he rages against the restrictions of his suddenly enclosed and joyless world.
Shut in the schoolroom until he finishes his homework, the little boy lashes out, spilling ink on the carpet, smashing the crockery, snapping the pendulum off the clock, tearing the wallpaper and terrorising the cat. But just as his tantrum is exhausted he finds that the tables have turned as the furniture, objects and animals that surround him come to life and scold him for his behaviour.
Enchanting and elegant, its flirtations with ragtime, baroque dance, Puccini, Bellini and even Wagner orchestrated with dazzling skill, Ravel’s opera has always been a favourite. But since the start of lockdown it has become something more: a musical expression of frustration, fear and anger, but also its cure.
It’s no coincidence that L’enfant was conceived in conflict and born in a world still traumatised by recent history. Excited by the commission from the Paris Opéra, the novelist Colette wrote the libretto in just eight days in 1916. But with Ravel on active service — not, as he desperately wished, in the air force, but driving munitions across the country — the text wasn’t set to music until the 1920s. The opera may be a story of childhood, but it is in no way childish; it’s a fairy tale, but it is neither an evasion of horror nor a regression from it.
Children are everywhere in opera. But whether it’s Marie’s small son in Wozzeck or Charlotte’s tooth-achingly wholesome posse of siblings in Werther, they are symbols, devices, emotional shorthand — rarely people. What Ravel gives us so startlingly in L’enfant isn’t just a child but a complicated, vulnerable, not always very likeable person, one who feels all too familiar to most of us, I suspect.
And, for all its fantasy, his world is real too. Just behind the ravaged interiors, the mournful animals and the vast, faceless figure of Mother (who, in the work’s original staging, was represented by a giant skirt) are historical nightmares — the grotesque, distorted visions of Otto Dix and Wyndham Lewis. Who can hear the boy’s two climactic cries of ‘Maman!’ without hearing the fear of a generation forced into adulthood ahead of its time, without thinking of men little more than boys calling out from trenches?
L’enfant is a coming-of-age story, a sequence of transformative first encounters with love, desire, death, loneliness, loss and regret, but it’s also a kaleidoscopic celebration of imagination — a musical Voyage Around My Room that takes a prison and make a whole world of it.
The neat pastoral figures of toile de Jouy wallpaper step out from their patterns and, to the accompaniment of a musette, process sadly into the distance — refugees from the ruins of their pastel-coloured world. A chipped Chinese cup and a teapot dance a sardonic foxtrot (accompanied by, among other instruments, a cheese grater), while the fire in the grate becomes the flickering flames of coloratura. Nothing here is as it seems or sounds.
But it’s in the garden that the Child’s voyage around himself takes place. It’s impossible to see his adventures there — his progress from joy to uncertainty, terror and finally remorse as he binds the Squirrel’s wound — and not think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, of the fairy wood where civilisation is stripped away and instinct, desire and nature rule. Britten clearly felt it, echoing Ravel’s gliding strings and unsettling wind chords in the overture to his opera.
Recordings of Ravel’s opera must balance its enchantment and giddy flights of musical fantasy with its precision and essential seriousness. This isn’t Disney, and accounts like Seiji Ozawa’s that overplay the comedy or over-sweeten the Child miss the point. Then there’s the problem of the Child himself, who must be as clear-eyed and grubby-kneed as an adult woman can manage. This is where Lorin Maazel’s account comes into its own. Françoise Ogéas is youthful, piquant, petulant without ever becoming unbearable.
For sheer beauty and a sense of transformative magic Mikko Franck’s recent recording with the Orchestra of Radio France is hard to beat. The pacing of the opening allows the musical spell time to take, and silky winds and strings rustle and shift behind voices that never forget how much of the interest lies in the background. But, for me, it’s just fractionally too polite.
There’s an anarchic energy to this opera, a danger that has to be real if both we and the Child are to emerge changed. For that it’s Maazel every time. As the child cries out ‘Maman!’ and the hypnotic, endlessly circling oboes of the opening return, boredom, anger and frustration are transfigured into security, safety, contentment. For a while, at least.
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