Opera Guide: Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges

Often performed in a double bill with Ravel’s other one-act opera, L’Heure Espagnole, this is a richly colourful and inventive score.


Have a listen to this first. A touchingly poignant conclusion to the opera, I first heard it on Radio 3, as Jeremy Sams discussed Ravel’s Complete Edition on Decca with Andrew MacGregor.

L’Enfant et les sortilèges is an opera in one act with the libretto by Colette, first performed in 1925 in Monte Carlo. Originally conceived as a ballet, it also bears the marks of Ravel’s fascination with the cinema with its vein of surrealist fantasy and scenic fluidity. What happens? A child, scolded by his mother, throws a tantrum, breaking his toys. They in turn come alive and reprimand him.

What a score this is, sensuous, full of charm. Full of delicate pastiches and dances (a minuet for two armchairs, a nonsense Chinese pentatonic foxtrot for the cup and teapot, a pastorale for the wallpaper shepherd and shepherdess, and an extended orchestral waltz for the frogs), the cast is only offered short cameo roles, but virtuoso singing is also required. Fire, the Nightingale, and the Princess (specified by the composer to be sung by the same soprano) demand trills and a Queen-of-the-Night top F. This is a note which the character tenor playing Arithmetic also has to touch.

The squirrel’s lament is vocally perhaps the most purely beautiful section, though the final fugal chorus of farewell above runs it a close second. Note the elements of jazz, blues, ragtime, and American popular music, especially in the piano part.

An enchanting fantasy with a moral, Glyndebourne’s recording from 2012 was the winner for this year’s Gramophone Opera Recording category. I love this production, directed by Laurent Pelly.

Ravel is reported to have enjoyed Walt Disney’s early cartoons and to have believed that the medium could have animated the opera as he had always dreamed.


Lorin Maazel: Orchestre National De France. DG#449769


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