Opera North Blog

L'enfant et les sortilèges in a nutshell


Everything you need to know about L'enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells) in one place – right here!

What is the story?

A naughty child refuses to do his homework, is told off by his mother, and throws a terrible tantrum, assaulting all the objects and even animals in his little attic room. Gradually, the aggrieved and broken items – furniture, clocks, crockery – come to life around him. Out in the garden, events take an even more disturbing turn when all the trees and animals rebuke him for the injuries he has done them in the past. Can the child redeem himself?

Part of our season of six short operas with huge emotions, L’enfant will amaze and enchant, but is also an incredibly moving tale of a child learning to empathise, forgive, and ask for forgiveness. 

For a full synopsis, visit the L’enfant et les sortilèges webpage >> The Story

Who are the characters?

L’enfant has a myriad of different characters, and most performers play multiple roles. Here are just a few: 

The Child (mezzo-soprano, trouser role)
Fire / Princess / Nightingale (soprano)
Mother / Chinese Cup / Squirrel (mezzo-soprano)
Grandfather Clock / Tom Cat (baritone)
Teapot / Tree Frog / Arithmetic (tenor)
Louis XV Chair Female Cat / Owl (mezzo-soprano)

 A full chorus also appears in various guises – wallpaper, insects, frogs and more...

What is the music like?

Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges is an Alice in Wonderland of an opera score, full of crazy orchestration, dark humour, and fantastical musical pictures. Some unusual instruments are featured, including a slide whistle, wind machine, huge and varied percussion section, a piano and celeste, while more familiar instruments are used in unconventional ways – the woodwind create sounds of bird calls in the nighttime garden, and there’s lots of trippy glissandi (sliding around) in the strings!

Like a musical kaleidoscope, each of the opera’s quickly shifting scenes is an intentional parody of another style. The music of the Teapot and Chinese Cup is very Gershwin, Fire has high-pitched swirling bel canto coloratura (as per Donizetti), Arithmetic and his chorus of Numbers chant sums in manic imitation of the 19th century catalogue aria (such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s patter songs), and the seductive cat duet, sung entirety to ‘meows’, is often seen as a Wagner pastiche. As Ravel himself wrote “The score is a very smooth blending of all styles from all epochs, from Bach up to ... Ravel!”, so it could be said that L'enfant et les sortilèges captures in miniature the evolution of opera itself.  See which other musical styles you can spot…

What is this production like?

Annabel Arden’s new production of L’enfant et les sortilèges explores the inner world of a child – a journey into the imagination, and ultimately, an emotional journey towards adulthood. Therefore, rather than performers dressed as giant objects, we see them materialize from the objects themselves. Armchair emerges from an actual armchair, Fire leaps out of the boiler, and many of the characters will be familiar to us as people. Bat and Dragonfly will be recognisable as eccentric old ladies who have lost their partners, and perhaps figures that the child has known in real life.

Hannah Clark’s costume designs are filled with all the magic, darkness and humour of Ravel’s music. See Armchair, Louis XV Chair and the Child below...

Who was the composer?

The music of L’enfant et les sortilèges was written by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), closely associated, along with Debussy, with the impressionist style, but most famous for Bolero. He wrote only two operas, L’enfant and the comic L’heure espagnole, both one act pieces.

The opera’s libretto is by famous French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette (Gigi).

Did you know?

  • The music of L’enfant may have ended up very different. Colette’s text, commissioned by the director of the Opéra de Paris, was first offered to composer Paul Dukas (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and then to Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring, The Firebird)!
  • L’enfant is a dance piece as well as an opera. In fact, it was originally commissioned as a ‘fairy ballet’. Ravel himself wrote ‘Our work requires an extraordinary production: the roles are numerous, and the phantasmagoria is constant…dancing is continually and intimately intermingled with the action.’ Choreographer Theo Clinkard is working on our production.
  • It took Colette just eight days to write the text, and Ravel eight years to write the music! Firstly, the text got lost in the post and never reached him, and later on, flu, exhaustion, concert tours and apparently an infected finger all took their toll…
  • The opera was a brilliant success when it finally premiered at Théâtre de Monte Carlo in March 1925 (phew). Ravel received prolonged ovations, and appeared three times from the heights of the royal box to bow to the audience.

L'enfant et les sortilèges is sung in French with English titles, and lasts approximately 45 minutes. For more info or to book tickets, visit L'enfant et les sortilèges the webpage. Join in on social media with #ONEnfant and #LittleGreats

In a nutshell is a blog series devised by Opera North. 

Fflur Wyn as Fire and Wallis Giunta as the Child, 2017. Credit: Tristram Kenton
John Graham-Hall as Arithmetic and Wallis Giunta as the Child in rehearsal. Credit: Tom Arber
John Savournin as Armchair, Katie Bray as Louis XV Chair and Wallis Giunta as the Child, 2017. Credit: Tristram Kenton
Photograph of Ravel 

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