By Elsa Tranter
Photo credit: Brandon Patoc
What a spectacular evening at Davies Hall in a most literal sense. San Francisco symphony put on a splendid semi-staged version of Maurice Ravel’s short opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells) last night, Thursday June 27, complete with light projections across a scrim in front of the singers and orchestra that appeared like fireworks at times and illuminated the singers at other times (outlining a singing chair—or a pair of romancing cats—or a teapot). It was an inspired notion to make up for the lack of scenery or staging, with all the performers on the stage together. And the whole effect was one of intimacy—the stage itself even seemed smaller than usual.
Going back to the beginning, this opera was written by Ravel just after World War I, which had been traumatic for him. He was eager for something light and enlightening, with a happy ending. He collaborated with the writer Collette to produce this whimsical and charming fantasy of a child and his demons and how he conquers them and matures. L’Enfant had its debut in 1925, in Monte Carlo, with choreography by a young George Balanchine; the American debut was in San Francisco in 1930 at the San Francisco Opera. This is its fourth time here and the third with the S.F. Symphony.
The part of the child was sung by the vibrant and utterly charming mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, who can sing up a storm and did an excellent portrayal of a ‘mechant’ (naughty boy); she has been excellent at everything I’ve heard her perform and she captivated the spirit of the character perfectly. Other roles (in multiples) were sung, all terrifically, by sopranos Anna Christy, Nikki Einfeld, and Marnie Breckenridge; mezzo-sopranos Ginger Costa-Jackson and Jennifer Johnson-Cano; tenor Ben Jones; baritone Kelly Markgraf; and bass-baritone Michael Todd Simpson – what a group of perfectly cast singers! Everyone was dressed in black and moved about the stage behind the scrim, followed by the lights illuminating them. It was magical as well as beautiful.
Choruses galore added to the mix—the San Francisco Symphony chorus, under the able direction of Ragnar Bohlin; the Young Women’s Chorus of San Francisco under the direction of Susan McMane; and the San Francisco Boys chorus under the direction of Ian Robertson (who is also the director of the San Francisco Opera chorus.
Finally, also on stage, was the San Francisco Symphony orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Martyn Brabbins, director of the English National Opera, making an auspicious debut. The production was commissioned by Opera de Lyon in France in 2016 where Mr. Brabbins also conducted it, to great acclaim. The production was conceived by Animator Gregoire Pont and director James Bonas, who created an innovative way to bring together all the elements in limited space. Overall, this imaginative design was effective, at times like a Fourth of July fireworks show; but it highlighted the trend in opera performances so often of having a lot of ‘busyness’ which can distract from the music and singing, rather than merely enhance it. It’s a fine line to draw between sights and sounds; perhaps it takes time and repeat viewings to absorb all the elements at once.
The evening opened with several short pieces, all French. They included parts of the familiar Children’s Corner Suite by Debussy and part of a quartet by Fauré, as well as a portion of the Mother Goose suite of Ravel. The performers included pianists John Wilson and Peter Grunberg, mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson, and members of the S.F. symphony. Each piece was well done and well-received, but I think everyone was more eagerly awaiting the opera after intermission.
It was, altogether, a sparkling, spectacular, stimulating and satisfying evening, and I think everyone left Davies Symphony hall with smiles on their faces. It was an evening to remember.
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.