Ernest Ansermet's approach to L'Enfant et les Sortilèges highlights the perspective of the Child. The opening motif for two oboes, for example, is meandering and annoying, perfectly reflecting the Child's boredom and peevishness. The extreme eccentricities of the apparitions are heard in high relief, emphasizing the individuality of the vocal lines and the stunning clarity of the orchestral details. There is nothing pastel about Ansermet's reading; his ability to bring out the score's nightmarish qualities and to make the wild sections sound dangerously out of control is revelatory. All the singers excel, giving vividly characterized and vocally accomplished performances. This is altogether one of the most exciting recordings of the opera available.
Ravel's only other opera, L'Heure Espagnole, is less well known, but has many charms -- an amusing plot, vivacious music, and Ravel's characteristically brilliant orchestration. The libretto, however, doesn't seem to have inspired the composer as much as Colette's for L'Enfant, and much of the vocal writing is on the level of pleasant but unmemorable arioso. The characterizations of soloists Suzanne Danco, Paul Derenne, Michel Hamel, and Heinz Rehfuss are sharply and amusingly etched, and the singing is warm and idiomatic.
Debussy's incidental music for Gabriele d'Annunzio's play Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien is one of the composer's most substantial works, and the hour-long suite presented here consists of five excerpts assembled by André Caplet. The suite contains some of the composer's lushest and most highly perfumed music. If the listener can persevere through the sadistic pseudo-Christian mysticism of d'Annunzio's text, there is music of much delicacy, eloquence, and grandeur, and the vocal writing is especially evocative and expressive. The soloists don't convey the innocence and purity to be fully convincing, and at the end of an extended unaccompanied section notable for their perilous intonation, they face a dire tonal collision when the orchestra reenters. Ansermet's reading seems to plod when it should float, and generally fails to bring out the score's mystery and majesty. Ansermet's stolid interpretation, with the pallid orchestral playing and strained choral singing, make this performance seem very much out of place on an otherwise excellent set. The sound quality is generally good, with little tape noise, and the sound in L'Enfant et les Sortilèges is notable for the clarity with which it captures the rich and varied orchestral timbres.