L'Enfant et les Sortilèges; Osud

L'Enfant: ravel (music), Colette (libretto); Osud: Janáček (music), Fedora Bartosova (libretto)

Opera North

The Lowry

From 16 November 2017 to 18 November 2017

Review by Martin Thomasson

Among the many entries in Opera North’s credit column is their willingness to mount productions of lesser known works. Their current, “Little Greats” series offers a perfect opportunity for this and tonight’s programme presents two examples.

Ravel’s 45-minute piece L’Enfant et les Sortilèges opens the programme. The libretto, by Colette, was described by Melanie Klein as delivering "profound psychological insight" and there is, indeed, a clear character arc, as the eponymous child grows from a cruel, selfish, petulant boy into one who not only shows awareness of another’s pain, but is willing to tend to that creature’s needs before his own.

A prologue depicts a family group struggling to take a group photo (selfie-stick and all). A mischievous little boy repeatedly disrupts proceedings, gurning and wriggling while obstinately refusing to say "Fromage" with the rest.

Back at home, this bad little boy is confined to his room by his exasperated mother, for refusing to do his homework. Far from contrite, once alone, he flies into a frenzy of destruction—his targets including the inanimate (chairs, fire, clock, storybook, teapot, cups, etc) and the living (the poor family cat gets some rough treatment).

Magically, the victims of these attacks come to life and rebuke the child, though he seems uncowed and unrepentant. Even the warning of the fire, “I warm the good but burn the bad,” does not subdue him.

There is all manner of delights for the eye on show, here. Hannah Clark’s vigorously imaginative costume design does not shy away from the Freudian—teacups becoming pink bra cups (Madonna, eat your heart out!) and I’ll leave you to guess where Mr Teapot has his spout. (Note to concerned parents: Theo Clinkard’s choreography is well-judged—there’s no heavy-handed eroticism; a child will see nothing more subversive than cheeky humour, here).

Having seen off the fire, the grandfather clock and arithmetic (in the form of a crazy professor and his bunch of angry numbers), the child at last begins to regret his action, realising that, having destroyed the storybook, he will never know what becomes of the Enchanted Princess.

The family cat dances on, but is more interested in romancing a she cat than talking human—we are treated to a brief miaowing operatic interlude (the cats are beautifully costumed by Clark and their mini-ballet is stylishly realised by Clinkard).

The boy follows the cat and his girlfriend into the garden, Charles Edwards’s set opening to a lovely night sky (though menacing undertones are neatly hinted). Here he is confronted by an admonshing tree, displaying a bloody slash across its trunk: “you wounded me.” One by one, the child’s victims accuse him and then, all together, turn on him. Hurt and afraid, he cries out for his mother.

Noting that he takes pity on an injured squirrel, bandaging its injured paw and ignoring his own wound, the creatures of the garden soften their opinion. “He is so gentle and kind,” they note, joining together to call out, “maman!” on his behalf. His mother arrives to care for him. All ends well—the boy has matured and is safely in his mother’s loving embrace.

All concerned have fun here, but pride of mention has to go to Wallis Giunta, living it up as the little boy. This may be your only opportunity to see an opera diva literally turn cartwheels onstage. Take it.

The companion piece, Janáček’s, Osud, is darker by far. Osud (Destiny) opens with a prologue—the ageing composer, Zivny, invigilating an exam at the conservatory. Suddenly, he is transported back twenty years—set and props, neatly whirled from classroom to spa town cafe society. The younger Zivny has arrived here in pursuit of his lover, Mila. Mila’s mother dragged her here to get her away from the penniless composer (despite the undesirable consequence of leaving her daughter an unmarried mother).

Mila’s first question upon their re-encounter is, “have you come for your son?” In truth, he has come for her. The act closes with the distraught mother (another distinguished and measured performance from the powerfully-voiced Rosalind Plowright) crying out in anguish at the news of her daughter's elopement with Zivny.

By act two (Janáček crams a prologue and 3 acts into 85 minutes), Mila and Zivny are married. Mila’s mother lives with them, though under confinement—the fact of their marriage seemingly having driven her mad. Zivny’s unfinished opera remains unfinished. However, whilst in act one we might have imagined it was Mila’s absence that stood in the way of completion, we now suspect it is the content of the piece that is the problem. Written in fury, when he believed his beloved had cast him aside, Zivny now confesses, in shame, that he portrayed the central character as a “harlot”, who had shared her “body with the world.”

One of Zivny’s failings is his need for "thunder" in his emotional life. Pertinently, and poignantly, his son, little Doubek asks his mother, “do you know what love is?” Despite her reassurance, the child maintains she doesn’t know, because love is “what Jean and Nana do.” The two employees, Jean and Nana, sit quietly, lovingly, side-by-side. No thunder, here.

Before Mila (or the audience) can reflect on this, however, she dies in a tragic accident (caused by her mother, who also perishes).

Act three takes us back to the present (early 20th century, the piece being composed and revised 1903-7). Zivny’s opera (still incomplete) is about to be premièred (under the nom-de-plume ‘Lensky’). With students mockingly (and accurately) speculating as to the composer’s true identity and Doubek (now himself a student at the conservatory) squirming with embarrassment, Zivny’s health begins to fail him. Will the opera ever be finished? That, we are told, at the finale, is in God’s hands.

Janáček’s choice of librettist, Fedora Bartosova (a little known poet, friend of his deceased daughter) resulted in a tale that is at once overwritten and underwritten. With respect to the overwriting, it might be argued that the purple prose—largely spilling from the mouth of Zivny—is in character. The obstacle to completion of the opera remains unclear. Is it Mila’s absence or Zivny’s shame for the way he has portrayed her in his fiction?

Mila’s untimely death cheats the story, as well as her husband—we never really get a grasp of her relationship with Zivny. Doubek, the son, seems more a hindrance to love than a joyful addition; as a result, Annabel Arden’s direction struggles to make sense of the bond between him and his father in the final act. When red rose petals fall from Doubek’s violin case onto the prone figure of his father, we have a lovely metaphor for the loss they have shared, but one suspects there is too little else in the libretto for cast and director to work with.

More of Mila would also have meant more of Giselle Allen (never a bad thing). As it stands, the weight of the production lies upon the shoulders of John Graham-Hall’s Zivny. He carries it nobly and manfully.

An interesting, challenging, if problematic piece. Worth a watch.