Sunday, December 20, 2009

Celebrating the Naughty Child

Having chosen to write about sin yesterday, it would seem appropriate to follow up with a few words about Maurice Ravel's one-act opera project with Colette exploring the world of a child who would definitely be in the "naughty" category on Santa's list. The opera is "L'Enfant et les Sortilèges;" and it is an elegant little parable of how enchantment (les sortilèges) leads a truly nasty little boy to discover his inner virtues. That enchantment brings to life (and to voice) not only the furniture and wallpaper in the room where he is supposed to be doing his homework but even the contents of his mathematics textbook. (How many operas have "Arithmetic" as a character, in the tenor range, no less?) It then moves into a second scene in a garden where both animals and trees do most of the singing.

My first contact with this opera was on television, so it did not surprise me that it was not until 1981 that it entered the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera, where it was part of a triple bill entitled Parade. The title came from the "Ballet Réaliste" by Erik Satie that opened the program. Between the Satie and the Ravel was a staging of Francis Poulenc's two-act opera (performed without an intermission, because the acts are relatively short), Les Mamelles de Tirésias, based on the play of the same title by Guillaume Apollinaire. This is a farce about role reversal between husband and wife. The wife "liberates" her breasts (they turn into balloons that float away); and the husband takes over the role of reproduction, applying his manufacturing skills to give birth to 40,049 children, all of whom sing "Papa!" at the beginning of the second act.

I was not at the Met for the premiere, but I did get to attend its revival. This was one of those magical productions in which the staging and design contributed as much as the music. The former was by John Dexter and the latter by David Hockney. The high point had to be the identical perambulators (not the full count) for Mamelles, each of which had a little head (again all identical) that popped up while an off-stage chorus sang "Papa!" As Donal Henahan put it in his New York Times review of the premiere, an intermission was necessary "to clam everyone's giddiness" before the Ravel could begin. This was where Hockney's visual imagination moved from the ridiculous to the sublime in his conceptions of both the study room and the garden.

The idea of a triple bill, particularly with one item being a ballet, was definitely a major departure in Met programming; but the formula was good enough to be followed by a similar treatment for compositions by Igor Stravinsky ("Le Sacre du Printemps," "Le Rossignol," and "Oedipus Rex"). As far as I can tell, Parade was revived for the 2001–2002 season; but I have not been able to determine how well it was received. Those 40,049 babies were produced to support a war effort (the wife having turned into a general after shedding her breasts); so it is unclear how well that kind of humor would play in a post-9/11 world. Given what we have been through since then, however, a bit of the absurdities of both Collette and Apollinaire would be more than a little welcome.

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