Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortileges

The Royal Danish Academy of Music provides top instrumental and vocal courses for the future greats as well as specialised programmes in music education, composition, conducting and sound engineering. The general public benefits from the school’s professional performances of modern and classical pieces rarely shown at larger national theatres and concert halls. The level of talent and discipline at the conservatory challenges the notion of a student performance, and the range of the educational programme allows for more experimentation. The classics feel fresher and more like the artistic revolts they once were.

Maurice Ravel’s opera L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, or The Child and the Spells: A Lyric Fantasy in Two Parts, is no exception. An unusual one-act opera with a libretto by the renowned French writer Colette, its plot contains only one human character and is mingled with dance sequences. The basic storyline concerns an insensitive young boy being taken to task by the animals and objects he has mistreated, learning compassion and kindness along the way. Fire, cats, an armchair and a myriad of toys all become personified in dance and lyric melody.

The opera was created within a childlike, fairy-tale atmosphere. It only contains a few isolated moments of fiery Italian operatic writing – the most extensive example being the solo aria of the Fire. Two cats hold court in a sensuous love-duet of meows and the Teapot and China Teacup sing a mostly incoherent spattering of American and mock-Chinese idioms in French. The music, however, is scored with a light illusion of transparency inside a sound that is simultaneously both full and warm. Ravel seems to enjoy incorporating unusual effects such as clocks ticking and the cats meowing.

The partnership between Ravel and Colette was unnatural and challenging, but Colette’s ability to blend innocence with suave sophistication in her writing was the inspiration behind the story. It took Ravel nearly a decade to compose the opera, and Colette was surprised it actually made it to the stage. Written from 1917 to 1925, it was first performed in Monte Carlo in 1925 under the baton of Victor de Sabata with choreography by George Balanchine. The public and critical response after that first performance was warm, but not effusive. Ravel said at the time: “Our work requires an extraordinary production: the roles are numerous, and the phantasmagoria is constant. Following the principles of American operetta, dancing is continually and intimately intermingled with the action.”

Although he is frequently linked with Claude Debussy and impressionism, Ravel was greatly affected by his love of a variety of styles, including French Baroque, Bach, Mozart, and Chopin. His mother was of Basque heritage, which accounted for his fascination with traditional Spanish music, and he made a successful tour of North America, where he met George Gershwin and had the opportunity to broaden his exposure to jazz. Ravel was private, meticulous and precise as a person, qualities that served him well as an orchestrator.

Ravel described the basic musical design behind his opera as lighter than usual. “The preoccupation with melody that characterises the work is accounted for by a storyline that it amused me to treat in the American operetta style. By dealing with a fantasytale, 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.”

This partially-staged production was arranged for the symphony by Benjamin de Murashkin, who mastered in composition at the Royal Academy. Free tickets to the performance must be picked up at the reception desk at the school before the performances during office hours from 09:00 to 15:00.

Opera by Ravel: L’Enfant et les Sortilèges
The Royal Danish Academy of Music;

Fri Sat, 17:00 & 19:30; Free adm;

www.dkdm.dk