It was to have been, on the surface at any rate, a happy concert, themed around children.
For its annual opera performance in opera-starved Orange County, the Pacific Symphony planned an elaborate program at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall with Ravel’s one-act “L’Enfant et les Sortilèges” (The Child and the Magic Spells), preceded by Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” staged by the Magic Circle Mime Company. But Thursday night turned out differently, sadly. “L’Enfant” lost its innocence. In fact, that innocence may have been a ruse all along.
Although it is common for an orchestra to dedicate a concert to a member who has died and sometimes play a short work in his or her memory, a grieving Pacific Symphony made the extraordinary gesture of replacing “Peter” and mimes with a tribute to principal cellist Timothy Landauer, who died of cancer last month.
A year after becoming music director in 1990, Carl St.Clair hired Landauer, whom he called the soul of the orchestra. Personal remembrances came with a heavy-hearted “Nimrod” from Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations and Frank Ticheli’s honey-coated “Rest,” written in memory of St.Clair’s son and performed by the orchestra and Pacific Chorale.
If all of this put “L’Enfant” in a different, darker light, it wasn’t an unwelcome one. Ravel’s short opera, with a libretto by Collette, has never been as honeyed or childlike as it is sometimes presented. Written in the years following World War I, in which Ravel drove munitions on the front lines, it is a product of the composer’s probable post-traumatic stress disorder. It took Ravel eight years to complete.
An incorrigible child throws tantrums, tears up his books and homework, breaks everything in sight, tortures pets and ravages plants in his garden. All come to life to get their revenge in a spectacular, surreal melee. Eight singers take on dozens of characters, including talking furniture, sexy cats, teapot and China cup, bat and screech owl, frog, grandfather clock, tree, shepherds, princess, fire and, of course, scolding Mama.
When the animals gang up on the child in the garden, a squirrel is wounded. In an uncharacteristic gesture, the child bandages its injured paw. This is a godlike act to animals, which sing, in Ravel’s most memorably endearing style, of the boy’s goodness. The other musical styles, which shift with lightning speed, are musical hall, jazz, courtly dance and pretty much all else on show in 1920s Paris.
One way to look at this is as Ravel’s reversion to childhood when faced with the unspeakable horrors of war. What the music tells us, though, is that the literal bandage ending is a sweet deception, a false solution that makes us feel good.
In a curious program note, the production’s director, Robert Neu, described the work as little known. There may not have been any notable local performances since Simon Rattle conducted it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but the opera is, in fact, done by opera companies and orchestras all the time. David Hockney and Maurice Sendak have designed famous productions. Balanchine has choreographed it. André Previn recorded it twice. When Michael Tilson Thomas conducts it with the San Francisco Symphony next month, he will have the opportunity to show Silicon Valley the need for more than band-aid solutions to its societal disruptions.
For Neu’s part, he offered nothing new in his rendering with cutout props. But neither he nor a five-member team of scenic, costume and lighting designers with their play chests did no harm in the conventional evocation of playtime. They also had the advantage of an outstanding cast headed by Tess Altiveros as a particularly soulful child.
Yet the beauty and depth of this “L’Enfant” is in the orchestra, which made a huge effort to prove it has retained its soul. St.Clair, who first conducted the opera with the Pacific Symphony in 1992, the year after Landauer began, captured the flickering orchestral changes with a brilliance that demonstrates both how much the orchestra has grown — technically but also, yes, soulfully — over the past quarter-century.
“L’Enfant” goodness is not meant to last. It’s as effervescent as all else. Every minute matters, and every one of Ravel’s 47 surrealist minutes here.
Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday