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New Recording Revives Ravel's 'L'Enfant Et Les Sortileges'


This is FRESH AIR. Our Classical Music Critic Lloyd Schwartz has a review of the album that just won the Grammy for best opera recording - Maurice Ravel's one-act opera, "L'enfant Et Les Sortileges," conducted by Seiji Ozawa. Lloyd says the opera is one of Ravel's masterpieces. Lloyd had admired Ozawa's live performances of the opera with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. This album is Ozawa's first recording of it. Here's Lloyd's review.


LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Ravel's two extraordinary one-act operas, "L'heure Espagnole" - "The Spanish Hour" - and "L'enfant Et Les Sortileges" - which means something like, "The Little Boy And The Magic Spells" - a contemporary fairy tale with a poignant libretto by Colette, make a delicious pair. But they're rarely performed together because their requirements are so different. One has only five characters, the other, 21 plus a chorus. One needs only a simple set, the other, complicated stage machinery and fanciful costumes. And because Ravel makes at least as many demands on the orchestra as on the singers, these operas are almost better suited for a concert with a great symphony orchestra than a full production in an opera house, especially "L'enfant Et Les Sortileges."

The first production, in Paris in 1925, was choreographed by George Balanchine who attempted three more productions including a disappointing television version. I've heard at least two memorable live concert performances, both with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Seiji Ozawa. I wasn't a big fan of Ozawa's. He struck me as a master traffic cop and a good dancer on the podium. I rarely felt he had a deep understanding of the music he played. But "L'enfant Et Les Sortileges," which he led in 1974 and again in 1996, evoked something special in him. Even over a period of more than 20 years, he seemed to really identify with the disobedient young boy and clearly took a kind of wide-eyed pleasure in Ravel's dazzling orchestration. He had two excellent casts. Legendary mezzo soprano Jan DeGaetani sang the child in 1974. And in 1996, it was the winningly boyish Susan Graham. It seemed a pity Ozawa never recorded "L'enfant" but that omission has now been remedied. There's a new recording with Ozawa leading his superb Japanese group, the Saito Kinen Orchestra.


SCHWARTZ: "L'enfant Et Les Sortileges" begins within a nameless child refusing to do his homework and his frustrated mother punishing him with only tea and toast for supper. Alone, he tears up the room, smashes the teapot, rips the wallpaper with a poker and injures his pet squirrel who escapes into the garden. All of his victims, it turns out, have lives of their own, lives hurt by the naughty child - his Chinese teacup, the shepherds and shepherdesses on his wallpaper, the fairy princess in the book he loved. Even the numbers in the child's arithmetic lesson come menacingly to life.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character singing in French).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (As characters singing in French).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As character singing in French).

SCHWARTZ: In a magical garden, the plants and creatures lament their suffering at the boy's hands. A lonely dragonfly, whose mate the child has pinned to a wall, sounds like Edith Piaf singing a torch song.


EDITH PIAF: (As character singing in French).

SCHWARTZ: Soon an enormous fray breaks out in which the squirrel is injured. This is now the child's one chance to redeem himself. He helps bandage the stricken animal, and in a moment of surprising emotional depth, all the animals come to regard him as a sage.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters singing in French).

SCHWARTZ: On this new recording, I wish I were more convinced by the American mezzo soprano Isabel Leonard as the child, but the rest of the cast is a veritable cornucopia of veteran French character singers. Nearly two decades after his last Boston performance of this work, Ozawa still maintains his tender, childlike innocence with perhaps the addition of a new note of wistfulness. This Decca CD is fleshed out with more Ravel, and Ozawa certainly knows his way around this music, but he's never been better than he is in Ravel's wise and touching opera.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, and is senior editor of classical music for the online journal New York Arts. He reviewed Seiji Ozawa conducting the Grammy-winning recording of Ravel's opera, "L'enfant Et Les Sortileges," on the Decca label. The 80-year-old former music director of the Boston Symphony will return to conduct at Tanglewood this summer for the first time in 10 years. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: From Comedy Central's world news headquarters in New York, this is "The Daily Show" with Trevor Noah.

GROSS: ...My guest will be Trevor Noah. We'll talk about taking over "The Daily Show," growing up in South Africa the son of a black mother and white father during apartheid when mixed marriage was illegal, and doing comedy about race and politics. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Airwith Terry Gross.
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