Courageous staging of Ravel operas filled with magic

March 15, 1996|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Because Maurice Ravel loved the theater and was infatuated with the new medium of film, it has always been considered something of a pity that he wrote only two short operas, "L'Heure Espagnole" (1911) and "L'Enfant et les Sortileges" (1925). Neither piece is easy to stage, however, and while they are a frequent double bill at most schools of music, it always takes a certain amount of courage to present them as the Peabody Opera Theater is doing this week in Friedberg Concert Hall.

It is hardly a coincidence that the greater of the two pieces, "L'Enfant et les Sortileges," is also the harder to stage. The title translates as "the child and the enchantments," and it is a piece that exists only in the imagination of the naughty child who is the central character furniture and toys come to life, trees and animals talk.

It raises the question of how to play a singing armchair, a talking squirrel and a somewhat dimwitted frog. This is an opera that cries out for the animation filmgoers observed in "Toy Story." "L'Enfant" actually sounds better recorded than it does live: One's imagination is set free to enjoy Ravel's fantastically delicate, whimsical score and to be moved by the pathos of the story.

Nevertheless, Roger Brunyate's staging was still filled with magic. This musical and intelligent director had the good sense to realize that "L'Enfant" would work its magic best if it were relatively unencumbered by sets and costumes. James M. Fouchard's sets allowed the enormous number of characters to enter and exit freely, and John Lehmeyer's excellent costuming made no attempt to make the singers resemble the objects of the child's imagination, but instead to resemble the child, suggesting that they were his imagination.

The best part of the production may have been Carol Bartlett's choreography. It is notoriously difficult to get singers even younger ones to move well. To get most of them to dance (and do it reasonably well), as Bartlett has done, seems little less than a miracle.

Schools of music probably like to perform "L'Enfant" because its multitude of roles offers so many opportunities for young singers. Nevertheless, these cameos are hard to sing. While not everyone in the cast was equally good, no one was less than competent. Rebecca Pitcher made a flickeringly impressive Fire and Byung-Soon Lee was a touching Princess. In the title role, Haleh Abghari sounded initially too pallid and repressed as the child, but soon warmed up to give a poignant interpretation.

The musically somewhat less interesting "L'Heure Espagnole" also received a lively performance. As Concepcion, the young wife whose initially frustrated but not-to-be-denied determination to cuckold her aging husband triumphs at last, Carole Tracie Luck looked sensational, acted with flair and sang well enough to suggest that a big career may be in her future. As the husband, the student poet and the banker who all fail in one way or another to make Concepcion's clock tick, David Bell, Richard Crawley and David Fry, respectively, acquitted themselves well vocally and comedically. As the mule driver, whose earnest timeliness Concepcion learns to appreciate, Carleton Chambers made a sizable impression.

Conductor Edward Polochick elicited genuine competence from the hard-working student orchestra in Ravel's enormously difficult music.

The performances will be repeated at 7: 30 tonight and tomorrow evening.

Pub Date: 3/15/96

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