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.