An Unusual Night at the Symphony

Seattle Symphony's production of “L’enfant et les sortileges.” Photo by Brandon Patoc

Ravel’s short opera with a libretto by Colette, “L’enfant et les sortileges,” (“The Child and the Spells”) defies any ordinary description. And so does the semi-staging given it by Seattle Symphony with a raft of eminent helpers.

It’s the tale of a rebellious child, given to fits of anger and destruction, and his coming face to face with the objects of that rage and their rebukes—from the teapot to the wallpaper, the clock, the dragonfly, the bat, a storybook princess, two cats and an armchair.

To create it, production designer Anne Patterson and projection designer Adam Larsen hung long ribbons of varying lengths from the stage ceiling, which waved gently in a continuing faint breeze and onto which were projected the items. The Child, sung by mezzo soprano Michèle Losier, wore what a schoolchild of Ravel’s era might, but all the others wore plain black with fantastical white headpieces, sculpted by Zane Pihlstrom, which at a distance looked as if created in matte papier mache. Thanks to these headpieces and supertitles, it was easy to keep track of the story and its characters. The whole was staged, by Patterson, across the stage in front of the orchestra with the Seattle Symphony Chorale singing the trees, wallpaper figures, insects and so on behind in risers.

It works to stage this opera minimally. Patterson had the Child on stage and reacting throughout, with the accusing objects arriving or leaving from the sides or through the orchestra, and the Numbers, represented by members of the Northwest Boychoir with numbers on their heads, flocking on stage up the aisles to overwhelm the child with shrill cries of massacring arithmetic.

Besides Losier, the distinguished roster of singers included mezzo-sopranos Delphine Haidan and Allyson McHardy, sopranos Rachele Gilmore and Soraya Mafi, tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, baritone Alexandre Duhamel and bass-baritone Alexandre Sylvestre, while the Chorale and Boychoir were trained by Joseph Crnko and the whole conducted by Ludovic Morlot.

The music is evocative of all the elements in the tale, with some memorable meows from the offstage cats and a flute solo accompanying the Princess’s aria, exquisitely played by guest (and one-time principal flute here) Demarre McGill. Haunting oboes in a formless melody begin and return near the end but the whole work is atmospheric. The orchestra with its many solos and prominent parts for instruments, gave the singers excellent support. Morlot, himself French and with a clear affinity for French music, gave the whole a memorable presentation. This is a not-to-be-forgotten production.

However it wasn’t the only memorable part of this symphony program. The performance by young Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki of Mozart’s Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major left the audience rapt in listening and vociferous in applause after. His performance of the second, slow movement conveyed intensely the music’s anguished emotion while keeping it perfectly classical in approach. He took the final fast movement, labeled Presto, at a breathtaking speed, accomplished in a tour de force with lightness and clarity. When Mozart composed this, in 1777, the piano was in a very early iteration. Its action was about as light as that of a harpsichord, its reverberation delay quick and short, so that playing these quicksilver runs at the speed Lisiecki took them would not have been out of the question. But it is a very different kettle of fish to play them like that on the heavy resistant action of a modern concert grand piano, requiring extreme finger strength and dexterity combined with a relaxed touch. At the same time, Lisiecki gave the runs shape and phrasing as he did for the whole work.

The concert started with Bizet’s “Jeux d’enfants” (“Children’s Games”) five short pieces, several of which are familiar to many. The orchestra performed them with panache.

This program is repeated on Saturday, June 3 at Benaroya Hall.