Aside from the intrinsic entertainment value of these operas, they show Ravel in quite a different light than we are used to from his chamber and other orchestral music.
L’heure espagnol and L’enfant et les sortilèges. Operas by Maurice Ravel. Librettos by Colette and Franc-Nohain. Sung in French with English surtitles. At the Boston Conservatory Theatre, 31 Hemenway Road, Boston, MA, through February 5.
By Susan Miron
Maurice Ravel was well-known in his lifetime for loving small things and small people. Although he never married or had children, he lavished great attention on the children of his friends. His sublime Mother Goose Suite (1910) was dedicated to the Gobebskis children, and when the writer Colette produced the child-centric text of L’enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells), she chose Ravel to orchestrate it. Colette was already famous as a music-hall star and author of the Claudine novels. A text was sent to Ravel in 1916, when he was on war service on the front at Verdun, but it was lost. A second copy, sent in 1917, convinced him this was a worthy project. Finally in 1924, it was ready. Its world premier took place in Monaco in 1925. In an autobiographical fragment, Ravel confessed he treated L’Enfant in the manner of an American musical comedy, mixing styles that included Massenet, Puccini, jazz, and Monteverdi (!).
Those who see L’Enfant and L’Heure Espagnole (The Spanish Hour) at Boston Conservatory (there are two more shows) are lucky indeed. The joint production is very good, the singers and orchestra quite effective. These two one-act operas are, inexplicably, rarely performed together or even separately. Aside from the intrinsic entertainment value, they show Ravel in quite a different light than we are used to from his chamber and other orchestral music.
When L’Enfant opens we encounter a seven-year-old boy (sung on Friday night by Courtney Miller) in full destructive mode. He is at first totally absorbed with his video games but he soon has a colossal temper tantrum and starts to break everything in sight. Suddenly, all the objects and living things he has tortured spring (usually two at a time) to life. “I love being bad,” he brags, but soon he is confronted with the fruits of his nastiness, and he is scared out of his wits once the inanimate things he hurt turn against him. Each object proffers a new type of terror and punishment, singing and moving dramatically as they guilt-trip him. A tree says he still hurts from when the boy carved into him. Shepherds on the wallpaper chastise him, followed by a mountain of things having their vengeful say: chairs, china cup and teapot, two cats, a nightingale, bat, squirrel, owl, and tree frog.
Finally, a moment of grace: the boy bandages a little squirrel’s paw and saves him. The boy promptly collapses. His tormentors instantly forgive him, take him to his bed, and sing his praises. It was as if Maurice Ravel had channeled Maurice Sendak. The boy wakes and calls for his mother. She materializes. All is well in the world of the boy.
The costumes and set design are terrific. The set was all white (though sometimes it morphs into other colors) with permeable walls—slats through which a head or heads stick out (often a dozen noggins at a time, wrapped in what looked like white bandages) or whole bodies emerge. One of the funniest conceits is that the chorus plays pieces of furniture, numbers (this was hilarious), shepherds, tree frogs, and animals. The music was perfectly charming—Ravel excelled in writing perfectly charming music. To critics who complained Ravel’s music was artificial, he responded, “Does it not occur to these people that I may be artificial by nature?”
L’Heure Espagnol (The Spanish Hour) is amusing and beguiling in an entirely different way. The small but memorable cast of characters in this hilarious, one-act opera, which premiered in 1911 in Paris, includes the wily Concepción, wife of a Spanish clockmaker Torquemada, and three of Concepción’s ardent admirers. The role of Concepción is a marvelous piece of work, seemingly made to be sung by Courtney Miller, who was hilarious fanning herself while keeping three men on her seductive string as her husband was out regulating the municipal clocks. Much is made of the guys hiding in clocks, the latter moved upstairs and downstairs by Ramiro, a simple, tongue-tied muleteer (Isaac Bray), who eventually wins Concepción’s attention (and more) while his competitors are stuck inside of clocks once hubby returns. It’s a lot of fun, and Ravel never wrote (in my humble opinion) anything less than lovely. Try to see these playful rarities.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 30 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer.