L’enfant et les sortilèges / Osud

Maurice Ravel & Colette / Leoš Janáček & Fedorà Bàrtošova
Opera North
Theatre Royal, Newcastle

Katie Bray as Louis XV Chair, John Savournin as the Armchair and Wallis Giunta as the Child Credit: Tristram Kenton
Rafi Sherman as the young Doubek, Giselle Allen as Míla Valková, Rosalind Plowright as Míla’s Mother and John Graham-Hall as Živný Credit: Alastair Muir

After the familiar and well-loved pairing of Pagliacci and Cavalleria Rusticana, Opera North gives us two little known twentieth century operas as their second Newcastle offering in the Little Greats season.

Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges is very short, just 45 minutes, but they are very entertaining minutes. The child (Wallis Giunta) is—to borrow from something very unoperatic—“a very naughty boy.” Told off by his mother for his laziness in not doing his homework, he flies into a rage and attacks everything in the room—chairs, teapot and cups, fire, grandfather clock, pictures, ripping wallpaper off the wall—even the cat. He even tears up his favourite book.

Suddenly all of these come alive and complain about the way he treats them. Even his arithmetic book forces him to try to answer impossible questions. He flees into the garden but there all the creatures—and even the trees—add their complaints about the way he has treated them.

It is, of course, a morality tale and so all ends well for him—but only after he has learned the error of his ways and suffered enough. It reminds me in some ways of The Nutcracker—but a very bleak Nutcracker indeed—and interestingly it was originally conceived as a ballet.

Wallis Giunta really does convince as this obnoxious little schoolboy with all his physicality, emotional outbursts and self-centredness, and she captures him vocally too.

Ten other cast members play a total of twenty parts between them, from his mother to a dragonfly, from a grandfather clock to two teacups. And don’t they seem to be enjoying themselves!

As ever, the Chorus impresses too, as Numbers in the Arithmetic sequence and a beautiful collection of frogs (amongst others) which had me and many others in the audience chortling away.

Full marks to the creative team here for a wonderfully imaginative staging. Charles Edwards’s set design and Hannah Clark’s imaginative costumes work well together to give a 1950s children’s storybook effect—the colours in the initial scene during the overture led us straight into that world. And as for the Teapot and Cups… I won’t spoil it (see it!) but they elicited a mixture of shock and rather dirty laughter from the audience.

Theo Clinkard’s choreography made a valuable contribution and the whole thing was orchestrated by the imagination of director Annabel Arden, whose years with experimental theatre company Complicité and experience of directing at the National and the Royal Court give her a vision which is unique in Opera.

The second work, Osud (Destiny) is very different: it’s almost three times the length and unremittingly anguished.

It’s the story of the love affair of composer Živný and Mila whose mother opposes their relationship and tries to marry her to another man but Mila’s pregnancy puts a stop to that. The separation occurs though and Živný write an opera about the affair. But this happens before the opera actually opens.

When Osud does open, we look back twenty years to the reunion of the two on the promenade of a spa town when they decide to get back together. Then five years later, they are married and Mila’s mother has gone mad at the failure of all her plans. The marriage is full of tension because of Živný’s obsession with his opera and the madness of her mother—which, to my mind, is never satisfactorily explained—and the mother kills herself, as is Mila as she tries to save her.

The third and final act is set in the present. Their son Doubek is now a student at the conservatoire where Živný’s opera is about to receive its première.

Whilst the emotions of the main characters are strong and clear, the narrative arc is obscured by unanswered questions, extraneous events (especially the busy-ness of the spa promenade scene) and characters which seem to be important but who just fade away.

The saving grace of the piece is the music, for it reflects the powerful emotions but also has a lighter side, especially in the flirtatiousness of the young men and women in the first act and of the students in the third.

And the Opera North performers do it full justice. John Graham-Hall, who in L’Enfant delighted as the Tea Pot, the Frog and Arithmetic, here embodies all Živný’s passion and angst and Giselle Allen gives her usual powerful and compelling performance as Mila. Rosalind Plowright does the best anyone could with the undeveloped character of the mother—although she does make a frightening madwoman!

In fact, it would be hard to criticise any aspect of the production from performances to direction (Annabel Arden) to design (the Charles Edwards / Hannah Clark team again). Opera North does its usual sterling job. It’s just that the material is faulty. This is no Katja Kabanová or even Cunning Little Vixen!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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