Photo courtesy of Stanley Photography.
Photo courtesy of Stanley Photography.

Editor’s Note: This is part one of a series on three operas that take the same stage and bring together overlapping performers as part of a suite at The Clarice entitled “Crime and Punishment.”

The French composer Maurice Ravel is not one for understatement. His seminal piece, “Bolero,” is among the most musically controversial since it consists of a few phrases repeated louder each time.

L’enfant et les Sortilèges, an opera by Ravel performed in French this week by the Maryland Opera Studio and the School of Music at The Clarice, is similarly surreal.

In L’enfant the orchestra spills onto the stage with an impressive percussion section – a Ravel requisite – plus two pianos. A stand of ethereal leafless trees also adorn the rotating set under a smoky sky.

In the orchestra, conducted by opera studio director Craig Kier, the piccolo is precise, if atonal due to Ravel. The bassoons were a little disappointing at first but came back in full force later on, bringing the saxophones with them. Contrabassoonist Yuchi Ma deserves special recognition.

Aesthetically, it is now the 1920s. The discordant music and modern dance are off-putting at first, but when the surreal story gets going and the audience begins to hear the voices behind the movements, it is understandable and welcome. It is as if Ravel’s childhood insecurities have exploded onto the Kay Theater stage.

The lead child is played by mezzo-soprano Loghan Bazan, who played Ernestina in another opera in the suite, Gioacchino Rossini’s L’occasione fa il ladro, Bazan’s airy voice works well in the ghostly feel of this more modern opera. It is a true treat along with all the other players who rejoin in L’enfant often in multiple roles.

The complicated story follows the child as he lays waste to the room he loves, destroying some of his favorite objects in a fervor and dismaying his mother in the process. A teapot and a little Chinese teacup, two of his favorite objects, are specifically offended, as are the shepherd and shepherdess on the wallpaper.

Like a surreal, scarier Beauty and the Beast, the objects come to life after the child scorns them. This is superbly envisioned and executed through stellar costume design and supreme acting ability.

The shepherd and shepherdess’ costumes, matching those of their forms on the torn wallpaper, is the proverbial cherry on top of the impeccable production design, accomplished by students in the School of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies.

The objects exact revenge, scaring him with fire before taunting him with the destruction of the fairytale princess he loved. His math homework even comes alive to torture him.

Left alone, he retreats to the garden where trees lament the injuries he caused them. Then, after trying to find solace with a frog, he is almost killed by the woodland animals. Eventually, they relent and return him to the woman he called for in his last conscious word: his mother.

***

Baritone Gregory Voinier also comic relief in L’occasione delights as the grandfather clock lamenting his incessant chiming after the child steals his pendulum.

Later, Voinier’s black cat is similarly skilled at mugging for an audience. His rapport with mezzo-soprano Nicole Levesque, the white cat, is an exercise in onstage chemistry Levesque plays extremely well. She shows off her versatility with gymnastics as she lifts her leg perpendicular to her reclined body in a seemingly effortless display.

Tenor Sammy Huh returns as the broken teapot, and he and mezzo-soprano Stephanie Polonio expertly negotiate a trying scene in which Ravel imagines them singing a cabaret-esque ditty about Chinese curios, at times dipping into pidgin English. They handle the puzzling scene with grace, humor and a true understanding of what this critic likes to think Ravel was going for. Kudos to them.

Soprano Jaely Chamberlain, as the fire, is a beauty in the greatest costume of the night in the best overall lighting with emotion that doesn’t quit and a talented voice to match and then some. Her ability to carry the flaming notes across phrases is a marvel. The smoke, communicated by sheer grey scarves, is imaginative.

Chamberlain returns as the princess, stealing the child’s heart and the audience’s ears once more. Bazan’s mime of desperately trying to fix his beloved princess’ book, the same one he ripped, is fabulously frantic, matching the mood and the music.

When the princess rejects him, the audience can feel the dejection. It is a strong testament to Bazan’s and Chamberlain’s acting skills audience members can sympathize with such a heretofore unlikable character. The scarves are back to envelop Chamberlain again, this time as the shroud of death. Bazan’s solo ode to the princess is utterly lovely.

Later on, Chamberlain’s voice as a scale-sailing nightingale is a welcome addition to the large ensemble scene that brings the story to its climax.

***

Tenor Logan Webber returns from L’occasione as the math man, and his digit followers – sigma, n squared, percent sign, et cetera – truly demand the child’s priceless reaction: “Oh, God – it’s arithmetic!” The dance of the numbers is the most inspired sequence in either opera and its lyrics, which consist of a set of failed math problems, are some of Ravel’s most subtly genius.

Webber’s humor is back as lead frog. He envelops the role like a frog would a fly, interpreting the movements, feelings and even hand gestures of an amphibian with poise.

The lighted dots of falling stars in the background are wonderful. The animal costumes that come out in the night – especially the moths, frogs and owls – are stunning.

In a word, the entire scene is flawless to such a complete degree as to showcase the totality of Nicholas Olcott’s direction. The costumes are incalculably perfect in every way. The lighting in L’enfant achieves its ethereal goal stunningly – hats off to lighting director Brittany Shemuga on a job well done.

In the finale, low and high fight each other. As the men attempt to destroy, the women beg for mercy and his protection. It is a wall of sound, impenetrable and awesome.

Polonio, as Mama, is as loving as the child and the audience need her to be – a fantastic job on that relatively silent part. Bazan’s warbling last word is exactly what – after the confusingly surreal cacophony the child has endured – the audience needed to hear: “Mama!”

Ravel’s L’enfant is to be analyzed in its entirety: a set that encompasses all, a wardrobe that never falters, a dazzling ensemble and a story that tugs at the heartstrings.

It is the chorus that sends shivers down the spine in Ravel. They are different animals and objects, but carry that same chilling, operatic spirit together. To each and every performer onstage, a hearty, well-deserved “Bravo!”

headshotEvan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at evanjberkowitz@gmail.com.

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