Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Ravel's Malignant Toddler at the SF Symphony

Before the mists of time and memory take over, I need to write a shout-out for the SF Symphony's final program of their 2018-19 season, a stupendously inventive production from the Opéra National de Lyon of Ravel's 1925 one-act opera, L'enfant et les sortilèges. (All production photos are by Brandon Patoc.)

The portents were not good for this concert. Britten's one-act Noye's Fludde was to have occupied the first half of the program but was canceled months ago. The original conductor was to have been Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, but he had to cancel because of heart surgery. The happy surprise was that the concert was about perfect, with the first half proceeding like we were at the SoundBox nightclub, consisting of snippets of chamber music from Debussy, Faure, and Ravel.

None of it seemed very consequential, other than mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson singing an uncharacteristically savage "Christmas carol for homeless children" [in World War I] by Debussy, but the short pieces set the mood for the major production ahead.

The SF Symphony has featured great projection design from Adam Larsen over the last decade, principally at its SoundBox concerts, but the animated projections by Grégoire Pont on two scrims in front of the orchestra were an astonishing advance. Singers would throw out their arms and jagged lines of light seemingly shot out from their bodies in animated doodles. "How the heck did they do that?" was my repeated, jaw-dropping response.

The libretto was written quickly by the French novelist Colette during World War I and it concerns a little boy who throws a destructive tantrum after his mother punishes him for his bad behavior. He destroys a grandfather clock, tears up wallpaper, breaks china, and mangles furniture. Then the sortilèges (magic spells) in the title begin and the suffering inanimate objects and animate animals who the boy has hurt commence their laments and revenge.

My friend Janos refers to the current U.S. President as The Malignant Toddler, and it was a special pleasure watching this bullying brat being threatened and frightened by Fire, among others. The opera is usually considered a charming, nostalgic look at childhood, but the present political circumstances made me want to see the child sequestered away from everyone and everything, forever.

The rich, sumptuous, picturesque musical score was new to me, and instantly became my favorite Ravel. The orchestra under the original conductor of the Lyon production, Martyn Brabbins, was exquisite to hear and so were the huge forces marshaled for the singing cast, including the SF Symphony chorus, the Young Women's Chorus of San Francisco, and the San Francisco Boys Chorus.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard (above right, holding conductor Brabbins' hand) was her usual fabulous self in both the vocal and acting departments, and almost made me care about the spoiled brat.

Anna Christy, Nikki Einfeld, Marnie Breckenridge, Ginger Costa-Jackson, Jennifer Johnson Cano, Ben Jones, Kelly Markgraf, and Michael Todd Simpson were unusually strong in their many roles from a Teapot to a Screech-Owl, and there wasn't a single weak link. Congratulations to everyone on pulling off a complex piece with such flair.

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