This series is fast turning into just about the most compelling group of thematically-linked concerts in London this season – the LPO’s Rachmaninov celebrations (of what exactly? His dates are 1873-1943. Um…) having already exhausted musical endurance – and was duly rewarded with a full house, notwithstanding the presence across the river at yet another of the capital’s improper concert venues (© S. Rattle) of some German band or other. The Philharmonia’s inaugural concert performance of Pelléas et Mélisande last November was the single finest operatic outing I heard – and in many ways saw – in the whole of last year: and now we have a further, even more ambitious, semi-staging of Ravel’s second and last operatic masterpiece-in-miniature, the 1925 L’enfant et les sortilèges. In the event, I don’t think that lightning quite managed to strike twice, partly because the Ravel is a far more concrete and specifically visually conceived piece in dramatic terms than the hazily-defined Debussy, which therefore lends itself uncommonly well to concert presentation; and partly because the latter’s musical execution was to all and intents and purposes well-nigh flawless, whereas aspects of the Ravel realisation left a thing or two to be desired. Of course, in relative terms this is nit-picking: but that is what I’m here to do, after all, so prepare for some picking of nits in short order.
Considering that no less than eight personages were credited with various aspects of the semi-staging – lighting, video design, movement, costumes, direction etc., not one of whom took a bow at the end – I would have expected something that managed to recreate for the RFH’s platform a closer facsimile of what one might reasonably expect to encounter in an opera house. In the event, and despite the projection of surtitles, many of the double- and triple- (and in one case, quadruple-) cast soloists were effectively unidentifiable dramatically, their costuming either unhelpful or plain uninformative. Clever indeed the clogs who without peering at a libretto by torchlight in the blacked-out auditorium would have been able to identify any of the animal characters in the second half of the opera set in the garden by sight alone, and even the tree only became identifiable as such when chancing to bemoan that his wound was bleeding sap. And leaving aside questions of basic visual “legibility” in the narrative, there were some oddly muffled performances too. I’ve never heard the remarkably graphic and hysterically filthy cats’ duet – Ravel evidently observed his two Siamese at intrusively close quarters – go for less, not so much underplayed (there was any amount of voluptuous physical contact between them) as chronically undersung, mainly by the Tom Cat (the aptly-named Jean-Sébastien Bou). And whilst the nits are getting a good picking, why, I wonder, did the surtitles in the Chinese tea-cup’s nonsensical recitation of cod-Chinoiserie omit the delicious joke about Sessue Hayakawa, Japan’s first famous matinee idol of the silver screen?
Still, much of the 45’-long piece did come off well, especially the first half set indoors – here placed unwisely from an acoustic point of view up in the central choir stalls on top of the covered-over organ console – with a giant blackboard and what initially looked like a satellite dish that turned out to be the screen for the projections of the “grandfather” clock (or at least its face), together with a two bar electric heater (doing duty for the fire), a squirrel cage and an enormous angle-poise lamp. Chloé Briot – the Yniold in the Debussy – is clearly the go-to girl in opera when it comes to French boys, and despite the acoustic disadvantages of her initial placement, she gave a thoroughly engaging account of L’enfant, well enough sung, extremely well acted. Elodie Méchain sang Maman with a deliciously rich, fruity mezzo, and managed to capture the silly-but-real sadness of the Dragonfly at her partner’s piercing by L’enfant. Nicolas Courjal sounded rather blustery at the beginning as the Armchair – congruent with a lifetime’s being sat upon, I suppose – but was much more suave in the poor stabbed tree’s lament, which, like so much of the music in the later stretches of this score, breathes an oddly moving atmosphere of post-lapsarian loss.
Francois Piolino smooched as the sexpot teapot, hectored as Arithmetic and stammered as the Frog with great gusto whilst Barbara Hannigan, no less (and of whom rather more anon) was a piece of luxury as the Princess, albeit one without much sheen or tonal glamour, I thought. But the absolute stand-outs amongst the soloists for me were Omo Bello, with a quite lovely medium-bodied lyric soprano as the Shepherdess (and Bat. And Owl); Sabine Devieilhe as a crackling Zerbinetta-inspired Fire and Nightingale, with a rock-steady high C and D for the end of her stint as Le feu; and above all Andrea Hill, a Canadian in possession of the most sultry and sexy mezzo imaginable, perfectly even and focussed, who had four roles to incarnate and whose squirrel at the end was almost heartbreaking. The Philharmonia Voices (a professional body, here comprising some 30-odd singers) formed the excellent chorus from whose ranks various solo lines in the finale, when the child has been injured, were well drawn. Above all, there was the quite magical playing of the orchestra in this, quite the most magical of scores: the sudden transition from the house to the garden, accompanied by a plunge into medieval modality on hushed string chords punctuated by a penny-whistle owl is one of music’s most heart-stopping moments, a perfect aural ideogram of nocturnal mystery, here absolutely breathtakingly realised. And over it all, unflappable as always, presided Esa-Pekka Salonen, a born opera conductor whose Janacek cycle at the ROH can’t start soon enough.
The sureness of his touch had been evident in the concert’s first half, in which, if soloist Mitsuko Uchida lacks something of the rhythmic sharpness and virtuoso glitter of the finest exponents of the Ravel G major concerto (the two-handed one) in the outer movements, she more than compensates for it in the slow middle one, here more exquisitely shaded and long-drawn than I readily recall ever hearing live before (current native French pianists – Thibaudet, Grimaud – have a horrible habit of clattering through it noisily as if embarrassed at its aching sense of loss). Salonen’s accompaniment was very classy, though the opening slapstick stroke needed to be much louder, and the principal bassoon caught a frog – in advance of his appearance in the opera – in the first movement’s melting second subject (for that matter, Dame Mitsuko’s long trill at the end of the slow movement was an unevenly-executed specimen, not so much slowing imperceptibly as stuttering irregularly to a halt). But all this was of no detrimental import. And we even got all forty seconds of Schoenberg’s Op. 19 Six Pieces (No. 2) by way of – for her very rare – rather funny encore.
There was yet more refined sonority in the programme opener, Henri Dutilleux’s very late “Correspondances”, an 18’ song-cycle of sorts, only definitively finished in the composer’s mid-90s, with Barbara Hannigan – last seen with Rattle and the LSO incarnating Messalina in Ligeti’s Grand Macabre fragment, hysterically dressed as a cross between Lolita and a St. Trinian’s schoolgirl – as the radiant, and here very properly begowned, soloist. I only wish her actual voice matched her artistry, because for all her intelligence and dedication, there’s a certain thick, ill-defined quality to her mid-range I find off-putting, only for it all to clarify and focus the minute she can sing above the stave. The odd thing about the really rather sumptuous score is its, to my ears, inexplicably blatant borrowings, from Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten in the first song (of five) – the scrunchy, dissonant brass-and-percussion chord always associated with Der Talisman – and what sounds to me like the Act II passacaglia from Peter Grimes which underpins the whole development of the fifth song, a setting of a very touching letter from van Gogh to his brother Theo. Still, either way – deliberate quotation or unconscious reminiscence – these are very classy materials to appropriate and the sound of the whole piece is accordingly enriched by them. God knows the Philharmonia generally gets no credit for imaginative programming – far too much B & B, admittedly – but this concert certainly belied their reputation: and with playing as refined and subtle as this, in a repertory a world away from the thick sonorities of their more habitually performed German Romanticism, it seems to me they, guided by their principal conductor, achieved something very close to greatness, even on a night of less than perfection otherwise. More, please…