Ravel is not as widely known for his operas as for his other music, especially orchestral and piano music. It was Debussy, after all, who was the great path-breaker in modern French opera with Pelléas et Mélisande of 1902. Ravel admired Debussy totally, but had no such operatic ambitions himself. Nevertheless, his two short works in the genre are genuine and durable masterpieces of their special kind and are as different from Debussy’s as could be. l’Heure espagnole, from 1909, is a Spanish farce in French Impressionist harmony, with Wagnerian leitmotifs and an Italianate vocal bravura. The libretto, from a play by a once-popular French author, Franc-Nohain, appealed to Ravel for its setting in a clockmaker’s shop, full of differently-chiming and cuckooing clocks, music boxes, and automata, and for its broadly comic subject, including a rash of puns and doubles-entendres. It is hard to believe that this charming work was considered so risqué in its day that it was withheld from production for two years after it was written, but that was apparently the case. For all the vocal and orchestral fun, l’Heure espagnole is nevertheless a genuine opera in the classical tradition, albeit a short one, with stage action and singing that would have done credit to Il Barbiere or Gianni Schicchi.
Ravel’s second opera, l’Enfant et les sortilèges, premiered in 1925, with a beguiling libretto by Colette, is an entirely different kind of piece — a nightmare fantasy and cautionary tale at the same time, of the visual kind that Walt Disney could have done perfectly, as Ravel’s brother Édouard suggested after seeing Fantasia. Several of my fellow composers have argued that this is Ravel’s greatest work; it is certainly one of his most original, a triumph of his imagination in the years after the Great War when his style underwent rapid changes. Ravel’s love for the fantasy world of children shows up as memorably in this opera, despite a strain of sentimentality, as it does in Ma Mère l’Oye.
The Boston Conservatory, recognizing that Ravel’s operas are seldom heard in small theaters and are complicated to produce, has courageously mounted a double bill of these works, with conspicuous success in all dimensions. A double cast of singers, and a chorus and orchestra, have been assembled for four performances. From a vocal standpoint, both performances were absolutely excellent. (I heard the February 2 performance.) It would be hard to imagine more naturally expressive singing even from seasoned professionals, and all of these singers were students, undergraduate and graduate. The stage direction complemented the vocal gestures to best advantage as well.
The two sets required for l’Enfant, which was first on the program, were imaginatively blended into one, with some shifting and careful changes of lighting. (The chorus, pushing hands or heads through an assembly of horizontal white tapes that made up the walls, reminded me of a very mod production of Wozzeck that I saw in Basel in 1990; the idea really worked here, as it didn’t there.) The dreamlike quality of the first scene, in the Child’s room, was accentuated by having all the costumes of the various characters — armchair, grandfather clock, teapot, teacup, fire, shepherds, princess, Mr. Arithmetic — in white, while only the Child and Mom wear normal colors. In the second scene, in the garden at night, the lively cast of animals had delightful colored costumes, and this menagerie was well choreographed, especially during the “Valse américaine” and the Dance of the Frogs.
I was less pleased with some of the costumes in l’Heure. Granted the 18th-century setting, I wanted the mule driver to wear a working-class uniform, not a wig and waistcoat like George Washington. On the other hand, Gonzalve, the lover who would rather write poems to his girl friend than make love to her, looked just right, more like Lord North, and Don Inigo was a perfect stuffed shirt. Concepcion wore petticoats that were noisy and fuller than necessary for this seductress role, but vocally she was the star of the show. Her acrobatic gifts were almost as great, as the choreographer really put her through her paces.
The pit orchestra was only about half the size of what Ravel required, and there were many makeshifts, but these worked surprisingly well. The brass section, for instance, which calls for 4-3-3-1, weighed in at 2-1-1-0, but these skilled players worked overtime to fill the missing roles, and the result was good most of the time. I missed Don Inigo’s lonely tuba solo, but the horn stood well in its stead. l’Heure espagnole may be the first opera to use trombone glissandi, at the point early in Scene 1 when Ramiro, the mule driver, tells how his pocket watch saved his toreador uncle from being gored in the bullring. (“Mais si le monstre par la montre fut arrêté, c’est à présent la montre qui s’arrête.”) Because this opera, more than l’Enfant, depends more of the time on a fuller orchestral sound, this particular glissando moment suffered. But Ravel’s rich divisi strings came out nicely with solo strings. In l’Enfant et les sortileges, the lack of a full orchestral sound was less of a problem because so much of this opera is accompanied with high-register and chamber-music-like textures, along with successful orchestral devices that Ravel never tried before. The beginning of the opera is the source of a trick question in orchestration classes: what is the flutelike sound joining with the two high oboes, and why is it flat? In fact, it’s a solo double bass, playing natural harmonics in something like the 21st position. During the foxtrot (dialogue between the teapot and the teacup, the scene with the fractured English and fake Chinese text) Ravel calls for a cheese grater (râpe à fromage) in the percussion section. A notched gourd (râpe guero) was substituted — the same instrument that Stravinsky used in The Rite of Spring.
Congratulations to Andrew Altenbach, who conducted ably and steered through the often risky balance problems with skill. But congratulations above all to everyone, to the large team of performers and production who worked so well together to bring off this complex event so fearlessly.
Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert in Alban Berg, also Ravel and Debussy. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (PhD, 1967), he has published extensively on these composers and many music subjects, most notably, music harmony.