In the final performance of the 2018-19 Season, the San Francisco Symphony presents a program of music by French composers – Debussy, Fauré and Ravel – the highlight of the concert being a semi-staged production of Ravel’s enchanting lyric fantasy, L’enfant et les Sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells). Led by British conductor Martyn Brabbins, this staging by animator Grégoire Pont and director James Bonas, was commissioned by Opéra de Lyon in association with L’Auditori de Barcelona and Maestro Arts.
In 1915, Jacques Rouché, director of the Paris Opera, commissioned the French author Colette to write the text for a fairytale ballet. Maurice Ravel was apparently the third choice of composer for the score, but since he was on active duty on the Western Front during the First World War, he didn’t receive the commission until 1917, and wasn’t able to start work on it until the War ended. The completed work was ready for publication and production in 1925, and L’enfant et des sortilèges, with choreography by a young George Balanchine, was premiered on March 21st of that year by Opéra Monte-Carlo. It was a triumph.
By contrast, the first performance in Paris, on February 1st, 1926, at Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique, had a turbulent reception, however this was followed by successful productions in Brussels, Prague, Vienna and San Francisco (its US premiere in 1930), but not staged again in Paris during Ravel’s lifetime. It wasn’t until 1939 that the work was performed in Paris, directed by Jacques Rouché, and it is now one of the most beloved of French operas.
A story based on the wonder of childhood imagination, L’enfant et des sortilèges tells of a young boy, sent to his bedroom for bad behavior, who wreaks havoc with everything in his room. Falling into a deep sleep, he dreams that the objects of his rage come to life and turn against him – the armchair, the grandfather clock, the teapot and cup, the fireplace, the characters on the wallpaper which he’d torn, and even his arithmetic homework. Out in the garden, and still in his dream, the boy exacts his revenge on a tree, a dragonfly, a frog, a bat, a nightingale, and even his pet squirrel, but after an act of mercy in which he binds up the squirrel’s paw with a ribbon, the creatures take pity on him and lead him back to the house, leaving the garden bathed in the magic of moonlight. Full of regret on waking, he turns to his mother for forgiveness.
“L’enfant is an extraordinary work,” says director James Bonas, “a miniature so detailed, so finely wrought that it contains whole worlds within it. The combination of Colette’s imagination and Ravel’s emotional and ambitious response to her text creates an amazing opportunity.”
Conductor Martyn Brabbins is Music Director of English National Opera, Artistic Advisor for the Huddersfield Choral Society and Visiting Professor of Conducting at the Royal College of Music. He has held the positions of Associate Principal Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Flemish Philharmonic, Chief Conductor of the Nagoya Philharmonic, and Artistic Director of the Cheltenham International Festival of Music.
He is regarded as an inspirational force in British music, with a career in opera which includes tenures at the (then) Kirov Opera, and more recently at La Scala, and the Bayerische Staatsoper, and he has performed regularly in Lyon, Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Antwerp. He frequently leads performances at the BBC Proms concerts, as well as those of most of the leading British orchestras, and is a regular performer with international orchestras such as the Royal Concertgebouw, the Deutsche Symphonie-Orchester Berlin and the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony.
Maestro Brabbins has previously conducted performances of L’enfant et des sortilèges at the Opéra de Lyon in France in 2012, at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich in 2013, and most recently again in Lyon, in 2016 – at the premiere of the new production which will be staged at Davies Symphony Hall this week. Following the performance in Lyon, La Letter du Musicien wrote that “…… Martyn Brabbins delivered conducting that was full of zest and vitality, beautiful even in the smallest details”, and – according to Classique News – he “…. directed the Lyon Opera Orchestra with a refinement and precision that demanded respect”.
Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard heads an international cast as The Child in the San Francisco Symphony performances of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges – a role she recorded with Seiji Ozawa and the Saito Kinen Orchestra on the Decca Classics label, winning a 2016 Grammy Award® in the category of Best Opera Recording. Leonard made her debut with the San Francisco Symphony in 2013, and has appeared in several notable performances since then, including Michael Tilson Thomas’ From the Diary of Anne Frank in November 2018, Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles in September 2017, and the semi-staged production of his On the Town in May 2016, and Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole in June 2015.
The production team for this San Francisco performance also includes Lighting Designer Christophe Chaupin, Stage & Costume Designer Thibault Vancraenenboeck, and Stage Manager Marie-Cécile Leclerc.
Excerpts from Debussy’s delightful Children’s Corner open the program this week – a work which he dedicated to his young daughter whom he called Chou-chou – followed by his homage to the Hungarian café culture, Le Plus que lent. Fauré is represented by the Allegro motto from his Piano Quartet No 1 in C minor, and the second work by Debussy is his Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison – the voice of a child in a plea against the atrocities of World War I. Preceding Ravel’s main work for the concert is The Enchanted Garden from his Ma Mére l’Oye (Mother Goose) – children’s stories from 17th and 18th century French collections, especially Charles Perrault’s Contes de ma Mère l’Oye.
Martyn Brabbins leads the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (director Ragnar Bohlin), the Chamber Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, the Young Women’s Choral Projects of San Francisco, and the San Francisco Boys Chorus (director Ian Robertson) in works by Debussy, Fauré and Ravel, at Davies Symphony Hall on June 27th, 29th and 30th. For further information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
All photographs of the Opéra de Lyon performance are by Jean-Pierre Maurin, courtesy of San Francisco Symphony