RAVEL: L’Enfant et les Sortileges (complete short opera) – Soloists/ Chicago Symphony Chorus/ Nashville Symphony Orchestra and Chorus/ Alastair Willis – Naxos 8.660215, 64:19 ****:
Ravel only composed two short operas during his career of which L’Enfant et les Sortileges (The Child and the Spells) was the second. Completed in 1925, it is based on the text for a ballet scenario by the French writer Colette. Ravel is famous for his brilliant use of orchestration and this work is no exception. It has a large orchestra with many unusual instruments. Some of the strangest instruments include a wind machine, a whip, a ratchet and a cheese grater. This seems appropriate for a work of fantasy in which everyday objects like a chair, teapot and grandfather clock come to life and sing. Some productions of this work that I’ve seen include more ballet elements, reflecting the origin of this work’s libretto by Colette.
There have been several recordings of this very lovely opera that I’ve enjoyed over the years. My favorite recording remains the version conducted by Loren Maazel on a 1961 LP for DGG which was re-released as part of their excellent Originals line. Andre Previn conducted a fine version for EMI in the 1980s. Both of these performances are quite vivid and magical. The way the fantasy elements are presented includes an undercurrent of poignancy that gives the opera’s climax its special meaning. The destructive young boy is taught kindness and compassion by the very objects and animals that he has been mistreating. They turn on him and threaten him in the garden but the young boy saves an injured squirrel and treats its wounds. They are satisfied that he has learned his lesson and they return him to his "Maman", the last word of the opera.
In comparison, this version seems a little subdued to my ear, less vivid and magical. The climax of the opera seems to lose some of its power. It is beautifully sung and played by the soloists and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under Alastair Willis, however. The CD also includes Ravel’s 1903 three song cycle Sheherazade (as it is spelled on the disc). These two works are often combined because they are both fantasies. Ravel depicts The Arabian Nights in his music which is often dreamy and mysterious. It is sung with the proper feeling of reverie by mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne, and is one of the best performed versions of the piece that I’ve heard.
The sound on this CD is clear and just a little distant. That may be a deliberate attempt by the Naxos engineers to match the sound with the material. It is an effective combination as we are constantly reminded of the nature of the music.
— Mike Birman