RAVEL: L'enfant et les sortilèges. Shéhérazade.
Julie Boulianne (mezzo); Geneviève Després (mezzo); Kirsten Gunlogson (mezzo); Philippe Castagner (tenor); Ian Greenlaw (baritone); Kevin Short (bass-baritone); Agathe Martel (soprano); Cassandre Prévost (soprano); Julie Cox (soprano); Members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus; Chattanooga Boys Choir; Members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus; Nashville Symphony Orchestra/Alastair Willis.
Naxos 8.660215 TT: 64:19.

La chanson de la terre. Most writers on Ravel like to mention his fascination with precision and with clockwork toys and then go on to draw analogies to his music. Certainly Ravel ruthlessly strove for musical elegance, to the point where his output remained small, and artifice inspired him.

Ravel wrote two operas: the farce L'heure espagnole (1911), and this miniature fairy tale. He began working on the music in 1920 but didn't complete it until 1925, and then only under the pressure of an immediate deadline. Colette supplied the libretto in 1918 without knowing who would set it. It's a deliberately small-scale story about a naughty child who has a destructive fit of temper, wounds his pet squirrel, pulls the cat's tail, tears up his schoolbooks, breaks china, and shreds the wallpaper with the fireplace poker. His mother confines him to his room. The objects he has mistreated become alive and refuse to serve him or to play with him. He goes out into the garden and the animals first flee from him and then menace him. He sees the squirrel he has wounded, and, struck with remorse, binds up its wound. He realizes that what he has treated as objects have lives and thus becomes a moral being. In the words of William Blake, "everything that lives is holy, life delights in life."

Colette regarded her work as "modest." When she heard Ravel's music during a run-through, she exclaimed that Ravel had lifted her efforts to a level she felt beyond her. She needn't have been so hard on herself. Her libretto tapped into Ravel's deep emotional ties to childhood. Their collaboration produced one of the most profound works of the 20th century and certainly one of the most purely French.

The opera divides into two large parts. In the first, Colette sets the basic situation and shows the child's thoughtless cruelties on, mainly, inanimate objects. Even the squirrel and the cat, because they have no voice, become little more than objects. For each object, Ravel provides almost a vaudeville turn, perhaps influenced by Satie and Les Six, ranging through popular styles and dances: habanera, fox-trot, bransles, and so on. The grandfather clock harrumphs and complains. The (British) teapot speaks a fractured English, including "I punch your nose." The Chinese teacup sings pentatonically. The cats meow to one another. The arithmetic book, in the form of a little old man, keeps spouting algebra problems along the lines of "If two trains leave Cleveland for Chicago two hours apart …" and the ciphers themselves get in the act. The second part takes place in the family garden -- domesticated nature. The frogs sing and dance -- not lumpily, as you might expect, but with exquisite grace. A forlorn dragonfly looks for her mate, which the child has stuck with a pin to the wall of his room. A bat searches for his mate the child has killed in play and mourns for his children. The squirrel scorns the child for keeping him in a cage, when he wanted only to be free. Among the living creatures, the child learns to suffer with them. When he binds up the wound of the squirrel he harmed, the animals also have a revelation: the child is basically good.

One expects bewitching orchestration from Ravel, but in this opera, he surpasses himself. The magical opening of two solo oboes in organum and occasional sighs from harmonics in the bass fiddles burrow deep inside you. The opening to the second part -- birds in the night-time garden -- is simply one of the most beautiful in all Ravel, especially with, of all things, a slide whistle depicting the owl's hoot. In the second part, Ravel leaves pastiche behind for music that sings from the bone. This part lifts the opera from the charge of chic clockwork. The climax comes at the end -- the highest musical poetry in nature's hymn to the child, and the child's own benediction as he calls, "Maman."

I first made the opera's acquaintance in a rather dry recording led by Ansermet. Then I heard Maazel's reading on DG, which has for me become the one to beat. Rattle's recent very good recording on EMI is quite fine, although not up to Maazel. This recording isn't bad. I can pick nits. Some of the singers do what I'd call Full Frontal Opera, which might be fine for Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner but misses the mark in Ravel. Julie Boulianne has an excellent voice, but she sounds less like a naughty boy and more like Tosca, for some reason speaking French. Kevin Short, doubling as the armchair and a tree, has a wobble so wide, you're not often sure what note he thinks he's singing. Again, that might be fine for Puccini, but not for the Mozartean melodic precision Ravel demands. My favorites are Agathe Martel (the fairy-tale princess), Geneviève Després (Mother, the dragonfly, and the squirrel), and especially Philippe Castagner (the arithmetic man, the teapot, and the tree frog), all of whom have a wonderful sense of French style (all Canadiens). To get through this opera at all I think demands a high musical level. This is a good performance at a cheap price. Lack of a libretto is part of the cost of that cheap price. I think the libretto worth knowing. Also the Maazel is still available, although at a considerably higher price, on DG449769, but you also get L'heure espagnole.

Shéhérazade is an altogether different kettle of fish. Written in 1903, it's Ravel Luxe -- settings of three poems by Tristan Klingsor. The three settings evoke Western fantasies of oriental sensuousness, especially the first, "Asie," which goes through one orientalist trope after another. In "La flûte enchantée," a woman listens to the flute of her lover, while her elderly husband sleeps. It moves superbly from mood to mood -- from again languor to excited anticipation and back to languor again. There's a hint of sadness as well, of longing unsatisfied -- a haiku of emotion that implies far more than it says. Both the languor and the indirection carry over to the final song, "L'indifferent" (the indifferent one). The speaker stands in the doorway and wants a handsome stranger to enter, but he moves on. This poem also exudes a great deal of sexual ambiguity. You're not sure of the speaker's gender, since the speaker continually stresses the young man's femininity. The orchestra is golds, velvets, and satins -- rich, gorgeous stuff. Julie Boulianne's full mezzo is more than welcome here, and Willis and his Tennessee troubadors provide a sensitive accompaniment. Nevertheless, the performance to beat is the great Régine Crespin and Ernest Ansermet on London/Decca Legends 460973, simply one of the classic discs of French song in the stereo era. You also get Berlioz's Nuits d'été, Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis, and some Poulenc (the last two with piano). It's no shame not to have reached that level, and Boulianne's account of Shéhérazade is very good indeed on its own.

S.G.S. (January 2011)