An Opera Conceived in Troubled Times Shows the Importance of Caring for One Another

Mar 24, 2020

An opera-ballet about a child and his enchanted toys and animals came into being in the wake of World War I. Maurice Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges, or "the Child and the Spells" explores human cruelty and kindness through the eyes of a child. 

Stéphane Denève conducts The Philadelphia Orchestra in a performance of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortileges on WRTI 90.1, March 29th at 1 PM, and March 30th at 7 PM on HD-2 and classical stream.

Ravel was driving a truck in the French Army on the front lines during World War I. During his service, he was asked by Jacques Rouche, the director of the Paris Opera to write the music for a new opera-ballet, with a libretto by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. He agreed; L'enfant et les sortileges premiered in 1925.

Nearly 100 years later, conductor Stéphane Denève is among its champions. "It's a fabulous piece which has so many roles." Denève led a semi-staged version in early 2020 with The Philadelphia Orchestra, eight soloists, and adult and children's choruses telling the story.   

When a six-year-old child mistreats everything around him—his toys, his furniture, and the small animals in his garden, strange things happen.  "All the objects that he has destroyed during his temper tantrum actually become alive and start to speak with him, and reprimand him and complain and ultimately seek vengeance. "

A sofa and chair no longer let him sit on them; a fire no longer warms him; and a teacup and teapot break into the foxtrot! "We hear actually, the influence of America," says Denève, "because jazz was THE big thing at the start of the 20th century in Paris, and Ravel loved jazz!"

In the garden, small animals attack the child who has abused them, starting a chaotic brawl.

But the story ends with hope. An animal is wounded; the child bandages its paw. As cruelty gives way to kindness, anger transforms to compassion.  

Is it all just a fairy tale? 

"You know, for me," says Denève, "we are all aging children and we should never lose this quality of marveling."