L’enfant et les sortileges – Review – Leeds Grand
By Sandra Callard, September 2017
The Grand Theatre in Leeds is the venue for Opera North’s new production of The Little Greats, including the little-known L’enfant et les sortileges. This is a fairy tale and the composer is Maurice Ravel with a libretto by the French novelist Collette. For this piece, Ravel commented that he was writing in the style of Gershwin and the American operettas.
The story concerns a naughty and cruel young boy who, being forced to do his homework, becomes enraged and goes on a destructive journey of damaging household things and hurting woodland flora and fauna. His destruction covers books, furniture and wallpaper, and as he falls asleep, his anger satiated, the damaged objects and the injured animals, insects and trees come alive to admonish him.
The only two humans are the boy and his mother (Ann Taylor), who are estranged in the beginning as she scolds him for his disobedience and destruction. The show really runs on the huge, multi-roled cast, who are continuously scrambling in and out of varying costumes with the speed and perfection of consummate professionals.
The boy is played by soprano Wallis Giunta, who portrays a very creditable boy, her soprano voice easily transferable to that of an adolescent child. His redemption from cruelty to altruism is quite beautiful to watch, and Ravel’s haunting and unusual music is atmospheric and moving.
The costume designer, Hannah Clark, appears to have been given carte blanche with the outlandish, funny and incredibly clever costumes of household objects and animals. It cannot be easy to turn a performer into a passable chair, grandfather clock or teapot, but Clark manages it with some aplomb and much humour. The tree frogs in particular, looking nothing like the amphibians until they move, are amazingly frog-like as they jump sideways off the stage – and I defy you to keep a straight face as the teapot struts onto the stage.
The singing of Opera North is, as usual, quite perfect, and the orchestra is a joy to hear, but this apparently light-hearted and sometimes comic opera has serious undertones, as we observe the agony of pre-pubescence. The youthful exhaustion after wanton destruction, followed by the illumination and horror of his guilty cruelty are both alarmingly apparent in Giunta’s performance.As his redemption begins the animals forgive him and we begin to understand his plight.
This is an extraordinarily multi-layered opera which evolves from a seemingly innocent fairy story, and may be so seldom performed because the myriad complexities of the plot are not easily discerned, but L’enfant et les sortileges is, nevertheless, well worth your time and effort.
Images: Tristram Kenton