Ravel like no other – L’enfant et les sortilèges by the Virtual Opera Project is a lockdown masterstoke

As the performing arts keep navigating through the pandemic wasteland, still gazing into blurred horizons, it is hard to put into few words the scope of one’s delight when something utterly brilliant emerges from the desolation of silenced voices and empty stages.

Watching, and rewatching the Virtual Opera Project’s astounding recreation of Maurice Ravel’s enthralling lyric fantasy L’enfant et les sortilèges (1917-25) has been one of the most cathartic, life-affirming artistic experiences in the course of the whole covid-nightmare so far.

To begin with, the technical and logistical achievements in making the production happen are nothing short of miracle in themselves, let alone the sheer brilliance of the artistic vision and execution.

Put together in the midst of the first UK lockdown, Ravel’s astonishing vocal parts, which are plenty, were put together layer upon layer, with the singers recording their lines socially distanced, with facilities available at their homes. Keeping in mind that Ravel’s sung parts are, according to the words of the composer himself, full of ”melody, bel canto, vocalises and vocal virtuosity”, to make an intelligible whole out of the vocal score requires professionalism at the highest level.

A challenge par excellence for an ensemble setting on a stage, let alone for singers in isolation.

”And let’s not forget an essential element, the orchestra”, Ravel was quoted saying around the Théâtre de Monte-Carlo premiere in March 1925. As ever with the composer, the score is filled with instrumental finesse, rooted in Ravel’s dazzling orchestral craft and unparalleled sonic imagination.

In order to meet the safety measures imposed, Ravel’s original scoring was reworked into splendid reduction for twenty seven musicians by conductor Lee Reynolds, with composer Mark-Anthony Turnage as consultant, and performed by the members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. 

The reduction is simply admirable. Like all solid reductions, the reworked orchestration unfolds in natural manner, embracing the flamboyance and wit of Ravel’s original with imagination and reverence.

While composing the score, originally commissioned as a ballet in 1916, Ravel was inspired by the hot novelty of the early twenties, the American musical. Thus, the a thread of jazz-tinged hue à la Gershwin runs through the splendid orchestral fabric, manifesting itself in the most delightful and surprising ways in the course of the two-part opera.

Based on the scenario and libretto by Colette, L’enfant et les sortilèges constitutes a psychologically reflective narrative, stemming from a child’s perception of reality and fantasy, actions and consequences as well as defiance and guilt, clad in a vivid garb of a lyric fantasy.

According to Ravel, L’enfant et les sortilèges ”requires an extraordinary production: the roles are numerous, and the phantasmagoria is constant.”The Virtual Opera project’s production, directed by Rachel Hewer and designed by Leanne Vandenbussche is an achievement Ravel would undoubtably have been quite happy with.

The mixture of digital design, video, and live acting builds up to an aptly dream-like whole. Hovering back and forth between fantasy and surreal nightmare, Colette’s text is given a fascinatingly one-of-a-kind rendition, with poignancy and humor fused together idiomatically to convey the dramaturgy of the tantrum-throwing child’s journey into facing inevitable the moral consequences of human actions, and ultimately coming into terms with them through atonement. 

The fantasy-ridden storyline involves two parts. In the first part, the objects in the child’s room are awaken to life. Lamenting the misery brought upon them by the child’s violent behavior, the clock, the tea-set and, finally, even the textbook take the stage with their witty, absurd, and tragic numbers, clad into the most imaginative musical numbers by Ravel. 

The scenery, combining animation and live action, is abundant with intriguing detail, including a portraits of Colette and Ravel overseeing the action from the wall (right next to a Colin Matthews portrait). 

Leaving the house, the scenery changes from tube station to a hospital ward, from streets, and alleys to Trafalgar Square, eventually closing at the Coliseum auditorium of the English National Opera.   

The claustrophobic setting of the nightmarish sequences of Colette’s libretto bridge well into our covid-realities, echoing the emotional weight of isolation in the undercurrents of the splendid phantasmagoria surface of both the text and the music. A new translation of the libretto is featured as subtitles, and the Tea-Set scene features new Mandarin text by Victor Fong

The astounding cast, far too numerous and far too excellent to be sufficiently lauded here, amid these few lines, features wonderful mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds voicing the child, touchingly portrayed on-screen by the adorable Amelie Turnage. The ever-fabulous mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill sings the mother, joined by no less than thirty six singers, including sopranos Alison Rose, Suna Scott Sendall and Sarah Hayashi mezzo-soprano Jane Monari, as well as baritones Marcus Farnsworth and Jerome Knox, to name but a few knockout performers. 

An exquisite chorus of fifty-seven singerscompletes the line-up with memorable readings of Ravel’s wondrous choral parts.  

All things considered, the filmed production is one of the finest takes of L’enfant et les sortilèges that I’ve crossed paths with over the years. Both acutely particular and wholeheartedly universal, the Virtual Opera Project team has come up with something truly extraordinary. Available on Marquee TV website, this is a must-see production. 

London Philharmonic Orchestra

Lee Reynolds, conductor

Rachel Hewer, director

Tamzin Aitken, producer

Leanne Vandenbussche, designer

Emily Edmonds, mezzo-soprano 

Amelie Turnage, actor

Karen Cargill, mezzo-soprano

Marcus Farnsworth, baritone

Alison Rose, soprano

Kieran Rayner, baritone

Thomas Atkins, tenor

Jane Monari, soprano

Sarah Hayashi, soprano

Chloe Morgan, soprano

Elizabeth Lynch, mezzo-soprano

Claire Lees, soprano

Paul Hopwood, tenor

Shuna Scott Sendall, soprano

Jerome Knox, baritone

Michael Sumuel, bass-baritone

Idunnu Münch, mezzo-soprano

Eleanor Penfold, soprano

Elizabeth Karani, soprano

Gavan Ring, tenor

Marta Fontanals-Simmons, mezzo-soprano

Philippa Boyle, soprano

Premiered online on London Philharmonic Orchestra YouTube channel and on Marquee TV on Monday 16 November 2020, 8 pm (GMT)

Available for streaming on Marquee TV website

© Jari Kallio

Production photo © The Virtual Opera Project

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