"L'enfant et les sortilèges" says director Laurent Pelly "lasts about 45 minutes, but has the depth of an opera of three or four hours". (read the interview in Opera Today here). Ravel's music is extraordinarily vivid, but his concepts don't easily translate into visual images. Pelly, however, is a master at bringing abstract ideas to life, as anyone who has seen his Glyndebourne Humperdinck Hansel und Gretel would know. The Teapot and the Chinese cup dance, their "human" bodies exposed beneath the hard exteriors of their form. Ravel glories in mad chinoiserie, which conductor Kazushi Ono plays up with manic relish. The words aren't real but dadaist invention, even in Colette's original. At Glyndebourne the surtitles flash "Sessue Hayakawa" .Since this Glyndebourne production is a co-production with Seiji Osawa's Saito Kinen Festival, it will be seen by Japanese audiences who will get the joke (and can read the nonsense "Chinese" writing). Hayakawa was a Hollywood megastar from the 1920's, who subtly subverted western stereotypes of Asian people. Ravel is sending up the whole notion of western attitudes to the East.
Some of Ravel's concepts are so abstract that they're a test of any director. Arithmetic, for example, which is so important to Ravel that he embeds the formal logic of mathematics into his music. (The connection with L'heure espagnole is obvious.) In the 1987 Glyndebourne production of the opera, The Little Old Man who represents Arithmetic was surrounded by cardboard cut-outs of numbers. Pelly, however, brings out the true inner significance. The Child has rebelled against maths homework, and now the Glyndebourne chorus appears as identikit Child to mock him. The formality of rows and series - is this a droll in joke about Ravel's music, and the music which followed? Kazushi Ono defines the structure with clarity, and the chorus moves with precision. Surrealism liberates the imagination, but art needs an element of intellectual rigour,
Stéphanie d'Oustrac also sang the main role of Concepción in L'heure espagnole. Elliot Madore sang Ramiro the Muleteer who carries clocks around so effortlessly that he becomes a Grandfather Clock in L'enfant et les sortilèges (where he also sings the Tom Cat). This constant role-changing might stress singers, but is very much part of the meaning of both operas. They all performed extremely well. Torquemada the clockmaker thinks life can be regulated by clockwork, but as his wife discovers, things don't always go as planned. François Piolino sang Torquemada, and also the Teapot, the Frog and the Old Man of Arithmetic). The staging of L'heure espagnole seems relatively dated compared with the sheer genius of Pelly's L'enfant et les sortilèges but its clutter also suggests why we need clocks (and Arithmetic, and indeed of the mechanisms of the world around us).
This production will be screened online and in cinemas from 19th August.
photos: Simon Annand