Ravel and Saint-Saëns in Cincinnati

February 8, 2020

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SAINT-SAËNS: Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian
RAVEL: L’Enfant et les sortilèges

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra
Louis Langrée, conductor
Cincinnati Music Hall

Production:
Grégoire Pont, concept and video
James Bonas, director

Cast: Isabel Leonard – The Child
with Yewon Yoon, Raven McMillon, Anyeé Farrar, Elana Bell, Joyner Horn, Georgia Jacobson, Brenda Iglesias, Victor Cardamone, Ryan Wolfe, Antonio Cruz and the CCM Chamber Choir, Earl Rivers, director

Less than a month ago we heard Jean-Yves Thibaudet give a magnificent reading of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5, Egyptian in Miami’s Knight Performing Arts Center, with Juanjo Mena leading the New World Symphony. As a response to that performance I wrote “Thibaudet immersed himself in the luxurious concerto, with nonpareil Gallic elegance and dazzling virtuosity, eliciting a well-earned ovation.”

After the Cincinnati performance we just heard, I would comfortably repeat myself, adding that maestro Langrée’s affinity for the elusive style of Saint-Saëns provided the perfect element  with which to produce a riveting performance of this work.

After intermission came a performance of Maurice Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges, a chamber opera that its composer preferred to call: a “Lyric Fantasy.”

The French poetess Colette provided the libretto that depicts during the course of two short acts the dream-like events that occur when a spoiled child has a destructive tantrum in his room. The objects victim of the boy’s misbehavior come to life: furniture, china, pages torn from a book… to scold the boy for his destructiveness.

In a second scene the dream turns into a nightmarish garden, in which flora and fauna that have suffered at the child’s hands now seek his comeuppance. A fight ensues and a squirrel is hurt in the process. The child’s noble impulses prevail, and he bandages the little animal’s paw.

Realizing that the child is compassionate at heart the garden creatures lead him home in a procession.

Ravel created music for this little opera that gave equal time to dance tunes, choral interludes, virtuoso arias and occasional jazzy Americanisms. In the seasoned company of the fine American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, a cast of young singers took turns displaying their vocal and acting skills with notable success

As with previous efforts to produce semi-staged operas in Music Hall, this production only partially succeeded in melding two different forms into one. It gave the audience a taste of Ravel’s inventive music, Ms. Leonard’s honeyed voice, the emerging talents of a handful of CCM hopefuls, after which many of us were still left unconvinced about the mixing of orchestral apples and operatic pears in what is essentially a concert format.

For Ravel, who wrote the opera after returning from driving an ambulance in the killing fields of Flanders, Colette’s libretto proved to be the perfect antidote to post-war existential despair. For some listeners today, consigned as they are to living in the present, the sweet sensibilities of Ravel’s opera might be less than palatable. But on the other hand, I find its sentiments about coexistence with our fellow beings and respect for life in all its forms an energizing antidote to 21st-century cynicism.

Rafael de Acha

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