Friday, July 13, 2012


Reviwed by James Karas

L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is a one-act gem of an opera by Maurice Ravel based on a libretto by Colette. It is a rarely seen piece but it is one of the operas offered by the Aix-en-Provence Festival at the small Théâtre du Jeu de Paume.

L’Enfant is a wonderful fairy tale about a naughty boy who is disciplined by his mother and takes revenge by destroying everything around him. He breaks a teapot and a teacup, mangles his toys, and tears up his school notebooks and the furniture. He terrorizes the animals including the cat and the squirrel by locking them up in a cage.

All of that is done very quickly because the crux of the opera is the reaction of the objects and the animals to the boy’s mistreatment and destruction. They all come to life to take revenge on the naughty child.

L’Enfant is a large work and the Festival has opted for a “chamber” production. The score that requires a full orchestra has been scaled down by Didier Puntos to be played by a flute (Anne-Lise Teruel), a cello (William Imbert) and piano for four hands (played Didier Puntos and Michalis Boliakis).

There are nineteen characters played by eight singers who take up from one to four roles. (The original opera has 21 characters but two have been cut out from the present production.) The musicians are on stage and the relatively small playing space does restrict some of the opportunities for action but other than that the opera is very well staged, perfectly paced and a pleasure to see and hear.

Soprano Chloé Briot played the naughty boy. She is a petite woman who sang well, managed to look and act very boyish and moved with the agility and naughtiness of a youngster.

Argentinean soprano Mercedes Arcuri gets to be the menacing Fire and the sweetly-singing Nightingale and did well in both parts. The Princess, The Bat and The Shepherdess are sung by soprano Clémence Tilquin. She sings the beautiful and haunting aria “Ah! Oui, c’est elle, la Princesse enchantée” – she is the boy’s first love whom he has destroyed by tearing up his book!

Mezzo-soprano Eve-Maud Hubeaux is the pleading Mother, the Chinese Cup and the Dragonfly. Baritone Guillaume Andrieux is the broken-down clock who has lost his pendulum and can no longer tell time. Andrieux also gets to meow as the Cat.

Tenor Valerio Contaldo prances around as the Teapot with the spout appearing as a supersized penis while Eve-Maud Hubeaux’s Chinese Cup has an enticing opening around her chest ready for the tea to be poured in.

The Armchair that starts the rebellion against the naughty child is played by baritone Jean-Gabriel Saint-Martin and The White Cat, the Squirrel and the Bergère are handled by mezzo-soprano Majdouline Zerari.

The ensemble deserves a collective compliment. The opera consists of numerous short pieces that involve dancing and acting as much as singing. It is the telling of a fairy tale and the furniture, the animals, the insects and the birds appear in quick succession. The opera involves quick costume and scene changes and ensemble performances. This troupe excels at the job.

Ravel described L’Enfant et les Sortilèges as a lyrical fantasy and thus perhaps gave himself the freedom to compose in a number of musical styles. The opera goes from classical, to jazz, to ragtime to music hall music with some abandon. It calls for a large orchestra and chorus and that is what this production is unable to deliver. The musicians get the message across but a full production in a larger theatre combined with, say, Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole would be far more fulfilling.

The direction by Arnaud Meunier is impeccable and the costumes by Anna Autran are excellent. The fairy tale is told in a marvelous fashion and my only complaint would be that we could have used a bit more light. The lighting designed by Philippe Berthomé veers towards the dark and shadowy a bit too much.

Aside from that, this was a fascinating and outstanding fifty minutes at the opera.

L’Enfant et les Sortilèges by Maurice Ravel in a chamber version by Didier Puntos opened on July 6 and will be performed on various dates until July 20, 2012 at the Théâtre du Jeu de Paume, Aix-en-Provence, France.

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