By Joe McNiece
L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, Maurice Ravel’s one-act opera about a mischievous child who is reprimanded by the inanimate objects and woodland animals he has tormented, delighted audiences at the University of York’s Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall last weekend.
Despite being only 45 minutes in length, the piece was surely no mean feat to stage, given that it was performed in the original French. Director Emily Coppola must be commended for maintaining the clarity and excitement of the opera’s dramatic drive as at no moment did the language barrier cloud the audience’s understanding of the narrative. With a large ensemble of fine vocalists, accompanied by a 41-piece orchestra (under Dan Hogan’s masterful musical direction, assisted by Francesca Peilober-Richardson), Ravel’s colourful score soared. This too was aided by the wise directorial choice to place ensemble singers in the aisles of the auditorium in certain moments, providing a haunting surround-sound effect. It was also nice to see this technique not being overly relied on, ensuring its effectiveness through its economy of use. The combined sound of the orchestra and singers truly was sublime. Though not one singer seemed to lack the skill of their peers, it would be remiss of me not to mention the sheer effortlessness and grace demonstrated in the performances of Ella Rainbird-Early (The Child), Rosie Pudney (The Princess) and Emily Hodkinson (The China Cup). During the course of this fantasy adventure, notable similarities came to mind with the humorous children’s stories of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and even Paul McCartney’s animated ‘Frog Chorus’ from Rupert the Bear – so it was no surprise that comic moments featured so prevalently throughout. These moments were also dealt with thoughtfully, combining wonderful solo vocal performances with strong comedic gestures. Sam Gilliat (The Grandfather Clock), James Botcher (The Teapot) and in particular Robin Datta (The Maths Teacher), all displayed great comic skill alongside impressive singing.
Right in the middle of the performance, as the action moved from the inside of the house to the woods outside, a lengthy scene change brought the opera’s narrative drive to an unfortunate standstill, though it was nice to see the orchestra revealed to the audience in all its glory (even if it did come at the price of momentarily breaking the piece’s theatrical illusion). Despite this setback, an eerie atmosphere for the second half was quickly established, for which praise must be given to Jan Li Tan’s suitably moody lighting design, and the audience were once again immersed in the fairy-tale setting. At times, the large chorus did feel a little cramped on the relatively small performance space of the Jack Lyon’s stage, but for an opera of this scope and for the calibre of the musical performances on display, this could easily be overlooked.
This ambitious project was brought to life with aplomb under the team lead by Coppola and Hogan providing audiences with a whimsical fantasy escape befitting the warm summer evening on which it was performed. The level of talent on display across all the performances was truly remarkable and this production delivered a real showcase for what can be achieved by a university opera society.