Over the Barbican’s 2012/13 season, the BBCSO has performed both of Ravel’s completed operas. On each occasion it ensured that it put on more than just a concert performance, although the devices it employed to do so differed markedly in the two instances.
In the case of last October’s L‘heure espagnol, notwithstanding some projections on the walls of the Barbican hall, the staging was kept very simple. Making a virtue out of a disadvantage, the grandfather clocks were represented with flimsy ‘cardboard cut-out’ Big Bens, which caused much hilarity when the cast members so obviously scuttled behind them as they were carried on and off the stage.
Although the simplicity of that staging was arguably the performance’s making, the approach employed for L’enfant et les sortilèges, conducted by Stéphane Denève, benefited from being rather more sophisticated. Images, orchestrated by Jean-Baptiste Barrière, appeared on a screen at the back of the stage. These meshed the surreal and abstract with highly specific references to the characters and plot points, in a combination that elicited many aesthetically pleasing forms.
The singers were filmed live, with their faces frequently appearing amongst the images on screen. Given that there was always going to be a tiny delay between something happening and actually appearing on the screen, it might have felt jarring to see mouths out of sync with voices, were it not that the facial images were rippled and clouded to create a somewhat surreal visual experience.
With the soloists comprising students from the Royal Academy of Music, the standout performance came from Rozanna Madylus as the Child. Her pleasing mezzo-soprano voice possessed the right assertiveness, and she had a commanding stage presence, applying an appropriate degree of stylisation and exaggeration to her gestures for this most dramatic of works. Besides Madylus, the overall line-up of soloists was strong with particularly polished or entertaining turns coming from Sónia Grané as the Princess, Bradley Smith as the Little Old Man and Sarah Shorter and Samuel Pantcheff as the Cats. While each may have had good material to work with, this should not detract from the technical strength of their sound or the skill that each demonstrated in instilling in both their voices and mannerisms the right sense of the dramatic for this context.
Before the interval the BBCSO performed another theatrical work in the form of Poulenc’s Les animaux modèles (the suite version of 1943). This featured inspired, punchy and rhythmic playing from the orchestra, and particular delight derived from the middle four movements being preceded by Jean de La Fontaine’s original fables in a new verse translation by Craig Hill. These were read by actor Stephen Mangan, who with his all-knowing grin brought out every ounce of the wry, and occasionally dark, humour that is to be found in these still predominantly playful lessons in life.
This concert was recorded for a later broadcast on BBC Radio 3 (date unspecified at the time of writing).
Further details of Barbican concerts can be found at barbican.org.uk