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<<  -- 2 --  Wilfrid Mellers    SECOND SIGHT


Ravel's first opera, L'Heure Espagnole (1911), had involved toys and mechanical clocks as contrivances that, invented by man, boosted his ego in making him feel a shade god-like. In L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, however, the opposite occurs: birds, beasts, insects, trees, even inanimate objects like chairs, teach humanity to the fallen child, who becomes man regenerate. The experience of a Fall reanimates human awareness: which is why the human voice is here the heart of the matter. Although a modest piece, L'Enfant is essentially a singers' opera; even the central Child -- in this performance played by Claire Wild, who looks tiny enough and acts and sings zestfully enough to be a little boy -- is given tricky roulades to negotiate, which she does as fluently as Christine Buffle sails through the crazy coloratura of the Fire and of the Nightingale.

Claire Wild as The Child (right) and Jeni Bern as The Princess (left) in the Opera North 2002 production of Ravel's 'L'Enfant et les Sortileges'. Photo: Bill Cooper

Similarly, the serene modality of the Fairy Princess, the creakily arthritic arioso of the arm-chair or of the assaulted tree, and especially the love-song of the cats (a parody of Ravel's own La Valse of 1919, from which hysteria is purged, leaving only tenderness) -- all call on highly-developed vocal techniques to embrace a remarkable range of emotions from the comic and grotesque, to the suave and sentimental, to the pathetic and profound. Emmanuel Plasson, as conductor, effects these subtle transitions with a French nonchalance that never denies expressivity; and which, in the choral epilogue, attains authentic transcendence, even sublimity. Birds, beasts, insects, trees sing a modal hymn of gratitude because the pity they have felt finds an echo in the heart of the fallen child: who sings in consort with them, until his song is stifled with a sob ('Maman!') as he awakens, on the threshold of the house of man.

Ann Taylor (left), Claire Wild as The Child (centre) and Richard Burkhard in the Opera North 2002 production of Ravel's 'L'Enfant et les Sortileges'. Photo: Bill Cooper

If Ravel sometimes seemed cold and aloof as a man it must have been, not because he felt too little, but because he felt too much. He feared, not without reason, that the unimaginative harshness of the adult world would kill love; paradoxically, it was his apparently sophisticated irony that shielded the innocence of a child, for the salvation of which, in a more than usually corrupt world, the artist lived.

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Copyright © 9 June 2002 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK



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