BWW Review: Vive L'ENFANT! From Juilliard's Troops with Conductor Villaume at Alice Tully Hall

The Juilliard Orchestra and Opera beat the Met to the punch this week. They featured the French conductor Emmanuel Villaume in a superb concert of Ravel and Debussy, including a lovely performance of Ravel's short opera, L'ENFANT ET LES SORTILEGES, with its clever libretto by the French novelist, Colette. It took place just the night before he was announced to be taking on the premiere of the Met's new TOSCA--available after the opera company suspended its former music director James Levine when he was charged with sexual improprieties with minors.

Of course, Villaume--Music Director of the Dallas Opera-- showed his deep understanding of the music of his countryman at the Met last month, where he brought the subtleties amidst the firestorms of Massenet's THAIS to the fore. (Last year, his work was a highlight of the company's new production of Gounod's ROMEO ET JULIETTE.) Here, he helped the young musicians of Juilliard's first-rate orchestra find the nuances in works by two great Frenchmen who bridged the 19th and 20th centuries.

Debussy's LA MER is subtitled "three symphonic sketches" but there's nothing simple or hastily executed about the work, as it catches the beauty of the water, the play of the waves, or the wind making the sea dance. Building from the tiniest sounds of the strings in the first section, Villaume helped the musicians bring out the poetry of the piece--particularly in the work of the winds and horns.

It was a treat to have LA MER sandwiched in between a pair of works by Ravel--the early piece, MENUET ANTIQUE (1895), and a late one: the smart and sassy, sometimes dissonant, L'ENFANT ET LES SORTILEGES, from the late 1920s. (MENUET was originally composed for piano; the orchestral version appeared around the same time as L'ENFANT.)

MENUET was one of the first pieces written by Ravel when he decided to become a composer--one he claimed was "in the style of a dance 'of olden times,'" but, in fact, even at this point in his career was altogether more modern than might be expected. The orchestra and Villaume brought out the composer's harmonic and rhythmic games to great effect, with exemplary work from the horns and winds in particular.

After hearing Juilliard's performance of L'ENFANT, I wondered why the Met didn't bring it back for that triptych it offered in the early '80s, when it was matched with Poulenc's LES MAMELLES DE TIRESIAS and the short Satie ballet, PARADE (which gave the evening its overall title). It was certainly made for the dwindling attention spans of modern audiences. In the performance at Tully on Monday evening, the young Juilliard singers under director Edward Berkeley (and musical preparation by the Met's Donald Palumbo) turned in a marvelous performance, with no sets or costumes as they wandered through the orchestra.

The story provided by Colette--very different from her usual fare--seems a relative of Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are," with its hints of adolescent awakening. (She wrote the story before Ravel came on board as composer; originally commisioned by the Paris Opera, it eventually opened in Monte Carlo.) The child here is, truly, a wild thing, nasty to his mother, brutal to the other characters, whether human, furniture, china, toy or animal, or even a character from a book--among many other roles!--he has tried to destroy. By this time in his career, Ravel had come a long way in style from MENUET ANTIQUE, with increasing dissonance, though still offering plenty of whimsy, and what composer Ned Rorem described as "lusciously carefree, with its daft blues and dizzy foxtrots."

The singers and orchestral musicians were game for anything thrown at them and Villaume led a taut performance that still left room for the humor in the score. Mezzo Kelsey Lauritano was in full control--and fine voice--as the title character, crossing the fine line between mischievous and evil, until coming to her senses at the end. The rest of the cast mostly doubled and even tripled roles. I particularly appreciated the luxurious soprano of Onadek Winan, whose aria as the Princess (she was also the Fire and Nightingale), having stepped from the pages of a torn book, had some of Ravel's most gorgeous writing and stopped the show.

The casting was quite smart in matching up the voices of singers having to share scenes. For example, tenor Matthew Pearce and mezzo Kady Evanshyn were quite amusing, playing off each other very nicely as the Teapot and Chinese cup, while mezzo Nicole Thomas and baritone Gregory Feldmann did extremely fine work as the White Cat and Black Cat, respectively, in their aria at the end of part one of the opera. (Feldmann also made quite an impression as the Comtoise Clock.) On the furniture side, baritone Xiaomeng Zhang (the Armchair) and soprano Annaliese Klenetsky (a Chair) gave "well-upholstered" (and -sung) performances.

Tenor James Ley had an amusing, well-sung turn as the Little Old Man (at one point borrowing the conductor's baton), personification of the ENFANT's hate for arithmetic, while mezzo Myka Murphy was resonant at the child's Mama. Rounding out the cast of skilled performances were soprano Kresley Figueroa and mezzo Marie Engle, as a country couple who descend from the wallpaper, and soprano Vivan Yau as the Bat.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow