L’Enfant et les Sortilèges – Lyric fantasy in one act to a libretto by Colette
Ma mère l’oye
L’Enfant – Magdalena Kožena
Le Feu / La Princesse / Le Rossignol – Annick Massis
Maman / La Tasse Chinoise / La Libellule – Nathalie Stutzmann
La Bergère / La Chatte / L’Ecureuil / Un Pâtre – Sophie Koch
Le Fauteuil / Un Arbre – José Van Dam
L’Horloge Comtoise / Le Chat – François Le Roux
La Théière / Le Petit Vieillard / La Rainette – Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Une Pastourelle / La Chauve-souris / La Chouette – Mojca Erdmann
Recorded 24-28 September 2008 in Philharmonie, Berlin
Reviewed by: David Gutman
Reviewed: March 2009
CD No: EMI 2 64197 2
Duration: 73 minutes
Acoustic factors may have affected my response to the opera. The exhumation of orchestral detail is of course among Sir Simon’s defining specialities and there are numerous passages in which he either unearths unsuspected beauties or punctures the languid mood with a sharp stab of colour. At the same time, the sonorities as recorded have at times a density and lack of allure that works against the magic. Maybe there’s some want of naturalness in the overall conception too, though the occasional extreme tempo didn’t worry me. This is the piece in which more than any other Ravel cherry-picks his idioms and Rattle doesn’t disguise this with generalised warmth. The opening section is quite brisk, reflecting the boredom of the child rather than the tart ambiguity that results when players are having trouble just getting round the notes. When the furnishings come alive the protagonists are given plenty of space.
The cast looks good on paper and probably came over well in the Philharmonie. As recorded, however, larking about isn’t enough; the burden of meaning must be carried by vocal coloration and emphasis. There’s no want of character from the Francophone contingent but not all these voices withstand the scrutiny of close-miking.
Neither José Van Dam nor, more worryingly, François Le Roux have much vocal lustre these days. The great bass-baritone presents a distinctly threadbare armchair (the bottom of his voice has disappeared altogether) while Le Roux masks vocal decline with admittedly effective theatrics – a hysterical portrait of the damaged clock and feral tomcat. Only Jean-Paul Fouchécourt offers both acting and notes without fraying. Of the ladies Annick Massis is effective (and ageless) if rather too loud as miked in her various roles while Sophie Koch is unambiguously marvellous in all she touches. Her female cat is the most convincing I’ve heard and the voice itself is in glorious shape.
Opinion will be divided over Nathalie Stutzmann. A true contralto, a voice type we rarely experience in the flesh, she acts everyone else off the platform, yet her wide vibrato is something of an acquired taste and can disrupt the sense of line. The choral body is recessed and widely spaced, as in Rattle’s recent Stravinsky “Symphony of Psalms” recording (EMI 2 07630 0), and the focus on the exposure of underlying instrumental strands undermines or at least qualifies the effect of Ravel’s closing epiphany.
What of the child at the centre of the drama? French speakers may find Magdalena Kožena’s L’enfant rather pale in this company but then few singers of comparable stature have tackled the role in recordings – if only Frederica von Stade had recorded it as planned. Perhaps she too might have sounded rather mature and detached.
The present reading was taped live during the concert performances given last year, which might I suppose explain the over-immediate, cough-and-laughter-excluding balance. Was it perhaps inevitable that the nth degree of spontaneity and charm would go AWOL in the process? Those who venerate the distinctive atmosphere, timbral specificity and je ne sais quoi of Ernest Bour’s première 78 rpm set (latterly on Testament) may reject an account that links Ravel to the progressive eclectic internationalist spirit of his age and ours. I wasn’t much moved but I wouldn’t have wanted to miss Rattle’s bold and distinctive vision of a piece he first directed at the age of nineteen.