Maurice Ravel

L'enfant et les sortilèges, opera-ballet in 2 parts

    Description by Blair Johnston

    Although the finished product would not appear until 1925, Maurice Ravel had begun planning the opera (really a fantasie lyrique) L'Enfant et les sortilèges with librettist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (normally just credited as "Colette") as early as 1918. The partnership was neither particularly natural nor especially comfortable for either the composer or the writer, but, in the end they succeeded in producing an endearing and enduring theater-piece that many feel to be among Ravel's most thoroughly impressive works. Nearly half a decade was spent on the actual composition of the opera, and it was only when an inflexible premiere date was set that Ravel actually forced himself to wrap the work up; it was premiered at the Opéra de Monte Carlo on March 21, 1925, to warm, but not effusive, public and critical response.

    It was no doubt Colette's ability to seamlessly and unpretentiously blend together innocence and suavity that first attracted Ravel to her work. While Ravel is known to have made some modifications to the text of L'Enfant et les sortilèges, the basic storyline -- an insensitive young boy being taken to task by the very animals and objects he has mistreated, learning compassion and kindness along the way -- was agreed upon at a very early stage. Ravel chose to dip his musical ladle into several pots as he composed the opera, and we find dramatic opera mixed together with operetta and even jazz (the foxtrot for the Teapot and the China Teacup). Ravel had the following to say of the basic musical design: "The preoccupation with melody that characterizes the work is accounted for by a storyline that it amused me to treat in the American operetta style. By dealing with a fantasy-tale, Mme Colette's libretto justified such a choice. Here, singing must come first; the orchestra, although capable of some virtuosity, remains firmly in the background."

    And indeed, the opera is song and melody throughout. The fact that only a handful of the 20 or so solo roles are actual people, the rest being personifications of objects and animals (two cats, a chair, a clock, etc.), highlights the childlike, fairy-tale character of the opera. Melodiousness and precedence of voice over orchestra do not necessarily demand a "traditional" operatic approach, however, and only at a few isolated moments does Ravel allow anything even remotely resembling fiery Italian operatic writing into his score; the most extensive example is, quite understandably, the virtuosic solo aria of the Fire. Other highlights are the sensuous love-duet of the two cats and the gibberish-ridden song of the Teapot and China Teacup (an incoherent spattering of American and mock-Chinese idioms).

    While the orchestra is certainly subordinate to the voices, the actual orchestration ranks right up there with the composer's other masterful instrumental blueprints. The ensemble is rather sizeable, and yet the music is scored with such skill that the orchestra creates the illusion of transparency while in fact never lacking in fullness or warmth. Ravel very clearly enjoyed the challenge of rendering such unusual effects as clocks ticking and cats meowing. Some of the opera's critics, however, have found the abundance of such musical superficialities to be both distracting and disconcerting; one writer has even described the opera as an excuse for "dazzling musical legerdemain," and, to be fair, in any but the most masterful performance, its juicy sentimentality rings a little bit false. No doubt most of this overt emotionalism is due to Ravel's deep affection for both his childhood and his mother, both of which play a huge role in the emotional content of L'Enfant et les sortilèges.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2015 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4794306
    2015 Naxos 8660336
    2015 Decca 002381602
    2014 EMI Classics
    2013 Decca 4785437
    2012 Warner Classics
    2012 Decca
    2012 Decca 4783725
    2011 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 9482092
    2010 BD Jazz / Zebralution
    2010 Decca 570135
    2010 Documents / Membran 233017
    2009 DG Deutsche Grammophon 4778114
    2009 Naxos 8660215
    2009 EMI Classics / Warner Classics 5099926419
    2008 RCO Live 08005
    2006 Decca 458716
    2005 Decca 4756891
    2004 Arts Music 43039
    2002 Cascavelle 3048
    2002 Opera D'Oro 1324
    1999 DG Deutsche Grammophon 457 589-2GH
    1997 Berlin Classics 0091182
    1997 DG Deutsche Grammophon 449769
    1995 EMI Music Distribution 65744
    1994 Testament 1044
    1993 Valois 4670
    EMI Music Distribution 2241
    DG Deutsche Grammophon 423718