Given the number of very fine recordings of Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortilèges, it's perhaps surprising that one of the very finest, most stylish, and idiomatic performances should have its roots firmly planted in the American heartland. Alastair Willis, leading the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus, members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and the Chattanooga Boys Choir, conjures up a truly magical version of the opera. This is the result of a happy confluence of all the necessary elements: exceptional soloists who may not yet be international superstars, but who sing beautifully and are fully invested in bringing their roles to life; a thoroughly responsive chorus, exquisite orchestral playing, extraordinarily fine, nuanced engineering; and above all, Willis' loving attention the details of the score and his ability to bring an exhilarating musical and dramatic coherence to an opera that in lesser hands can seem quaintly episodic. This is a version of the opera that is brightly colored, whose incidents are dramatically charged and larger-than-life, just as they would be experienced from the perspective of The Child. Willis fully exposes the gift for humor that Ravel demonstrates in his brilliant and occasionally wacky orchestration and choral and solo writing. About half of the young singers who, judging from their bios, seem poised on the cusp of significant careers, are French Canadian, which probably accounts for the idiomatic authenticity of the performance, which easily outstrips that of some far more famous international casts. The choruses bring just the right loopy abandon to their depiction of the various groups of animals without ever stepping over the line into caricature, and their final madrigal is absolutely ravishing. The disc is filled out with an equally vivid performance of Schéhérazade, featuring a radiant, shimmering performance by mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne, who also plays The Child in the opera.
The sound is fabulous. Apart from a brief balance problem in the first few measures of the opera, where the string bass' harmonics under the oboe duet sound tentative and are barely audible, details of orchestration pop out with sometimes startling, but entirely appropriate vividness. Highly recommended.