15. Magic and Innocence
A double bill at Opera North
'This production, given its musical values, must on no account be missed.'
Ravel and his friend Debussy were among the most audacious dreamers in
French cultural history; and no people achieved a more sensitive equilibrium
between reality and dream than the French. Debussy was possibly the more
crucial figure since, during the years in which the humanity of the Western
World was disintegrating under the weight of its petty mechanizations, he
boldly ventured into the subconscious, there to discover in dreams
a reality that seemed both deeper and higher than 'consciousness'. Ravel
was, if less ambitious, more specific, for he concentrated on the basic
myth of Eden and our Fall from it. In the plenitude of his powers he created
his biggest and probably best work, the Diaghilev ballet, Daphnis et
Chloé (1912), which explored the ever-self-renewing mysteries
of adolescence; after which, winnowing down his resources, he further 'regressed'
to the fairy tales of childhood (as in the exquisite 'easy' piano duets
he called La Mère d'Oye, wherein are defined the pure modal
contours of his idiosyncratic tunes); and to a further clarification of
his sometimes ironically ambiguous classical harmonies (as in the Valses
nobles et sentimentales in which title both adjectives are precise).
This process continued until Ravel's final substantial work, which is
explicitly 'about' our Fall from childhood's Eden. Colette's sweetly subtle
libretto for the one-act opera, L'Enfant et les Sortilèges
(1925) tells the tale of a peevish child who, momently fallen from grace,
assaults his toys and picture-books as illusions that pre-vent his growing
up, only to discover that his 'crime', in ultimately generating pity, enables
him to discover his humanity and, indeed, his individual identity.
Copyright © 9 June 2002
Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK