Giving us a taste of his own in-depth Carnegie Hall profile next season, Pierre Boulez arrived there recently with the Cleveland Orchestra to conduct a pair of concerts devoted to Ravel along with a soupcon of Debussy. The conductor has made a specialty of these two composers for years, and few polish their scores to such a degree of luminance – the very first measures of Menuet Antique, with their textural clarity and tangy sonority, clearly indicated the identity of the man in charge. Anyone familiar with Boulez’s patrician way with Ravel would have expected as much, but what made these concerts special was the first opportunity in the U.S. to hear Boulez conduct the composer’s two one-act operas, L’Heure Espagnole and L’Enfant et les Sortileges.
The orchestra did not disappoint. Not only did the scores glitter wondrously, but they moved with an engaging rhythmic souplesse that perhaps only a French musician could achieve. If only it were possible to extend similar compliments to the largely nonnative singers, who, with a few exceptions, sounded clumsy and utterly charmless. It’s a mystery, and it seems to happen every time Boulez gets involved with opera. Why does a conductor so fastidious and precise with an orchestra always seem so blithely undisturbed by such unidiomatic, out-of-tune singing?