Maurice Ravel’s two one-act operas sit so comfortably together that it’s a mystery they’re not performed more often as a double bill. L’Heure Espagnole is a screwball sex farce about an exasperated clock-maker’s wife who attempts to control the comings and goings of her three admirers, and L’Enfant et les Sortileges tells the cautionary tale of a naughty boy who learns a lesson in humanity when his mistreated toys and pets rebel. These two enchanting works come from different periods in Ravel’s life, and they aim to please in very different ways, but each typifies the composer’s work: two completely realized musical worlds, each consummately crafted and full of entrancing instrumental sounds, winning melodies, and childlike awe.
The New York City Opera first paired the two works nine years ago, and we have waited too long for a revival. The designer-director team of Maurice Sendak and Frank Corsaro has done nothing better than this, and the production seems even more engaging the second time around, L’Enfant especially. There will always be disagreement over how best to stage this fantasy, in which armchairs dance a slow fox-trot, a fairy-tale princess appears in a rosy romantic vision, wounded plants come to life, and a grandfather clock goes haywire (Ravel apparently favored a cartoon treatment a la Disney, but composers are often wrong about their work). Sendak’s inimitable and instantly recognizable style, with its combination of wit and slightly threatening wonderment, perfectly matches Colette’s adorable libretto. Corsaro’s precise staging has a theatrical edge and a bracing vigor that are also right in tune with both operas’ unsentimental but warming spirit.
The Metropolitan has a production of L’Heure Espagnole on the horizon starring Cecilia Bartoli, although it’s hard to see how that acclaimed diva could be more cheekily amusing or vocally on target than the City Opera’s Amy Burton. Besides, this is really an ensemble piece for five sophisticated singing actors, and Burton fits right in with the polished and often slyly hilarious performances by Thomas Trotter (Gonzalve), John Lankston (Torquemada), Kurt Ollmann (Ramiro), and Kevin Glavin (Don Inigo Gomez). L’Enfant has a large cast, mostly in disguise, with Marguerite Krull as the disarming little mischief-maker taking center stage. Ravel has written one of opera’s great fight scenes for two quarreling tabby cats, here presented as animal versions of the child’s parents. The significance of that touch escapes me, particularly since it means inventing the character of the father. No matter. It’s a harmless conceit, and that delightful scene, like every other moment in this exquisite double bill, is irresistible.