Ravel’s marvellously rich musical score of his one-act opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges, is most often presented in a double bill with his earlier work, L’heure espagnole, but in this new opera production by the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University it was Debussy’s biblical tale of The Prodigal Son, L’enfant prodigue, that was its partner. Director Stephen Barlow has taken these two French impressionist musical works – Ravel’s lyric fantasy opera composed in 1925 and Debussy’s early cantata in 1884 – and melded them inextricably into one production citing as his rationale the cohesive theme of errant sons and their relationship with their mothers. He neatly brought this together at the end of the Ravel when both sets of children and mothers appear reconciled in an optimistic finale.  

L’enfant et les sortilèges. Photograph © Nick Morrissey, supplied by QCGU

The story of a naughty boy whose world is changed due to his bad behaviour, L‘enfant et les sortilèges is a moral tale which ends well. In the key role of the child, mezzo-soprano Xenia Puskarz Thomas gave an excellent performance. Her dark, creamy voice and first-rate language skills were assisted by an ability to look and behave as if she were a young, wilful boy. She was joined by a strong Maman in Emily Pederson, together with a wide range of students, often playing several roles, as the various objects and creatures in her life.

While the set was a basic box, it was transformed by various revolving walls, where inanimate objects such as the grandfather clock, chairs and crockery turn into humans. Designer Yoki Lai created some marvellous stage pictures, ably assisted by atmospheric and well-positioned lighting from Nigel Levings which really made this opera leap off the page. A new wall, displaying the destruction inflicted by the boy as he ripped off wallpaper, was also an inspired addition, as was the smoking fireplace and the appearance of Fire herself, sharply portrayed by Annika Hinrichs. Fun scenes included a graveyard where wallpaper displaying pastoral scenes was buried, with excellent vocals from the priest and entourage, as well as the choregraphed arithmetic scene, alongside marionettes representing two hilarious cats. The final scene with garden and woodland images included marvellous ‘human’ trees and exquisitely designed kites of animals and birds, including butterflies and dragonflies. The Squirrel, sung by a powerful Sheridan Hughes, and the tree frog of Iain Henderson were charming. The final off-stage chorus was lovely and quite moving, as the boy finally calls for his mother.

Musically both works elucidate the development of the French impressionist musical style over a four-decade period. Ravel’s work was gloriously innovative at the time, with its melange of styles that ranged from pastoral romanticism, coloratura opera and dissonance through to exotic music of the east, also including jazz, ragtime and even overtones of Gershwin. Under the baton of Nicholas Cleobury, QCGU’s Head of Opera, the Queensland Conservatorium Symphony Orchestra played very well, the Maestro bringing the various colours of both impressionistic scores to life within the stylistic demands of the works. Debussy’s opening musical sequence was both lyrical and atmospheric and there was a lovely legato flow and rhythm to this piece. Cleobury paid great attention to the leitmotifs and the strong melodies of the Ravel, while carefully managing his singers in some tricky vocal passages. The woodwind played particularly well throughout, with Rachel Lau’s flute hauntingly beautiful during the Princess sequence in the Ravel underscored by the tricky harmonics of the double bass of Georgia Lloyd.

L’enfant prodigue is not an opera and was never intended to be staged, having limited dramatic possibilities, though it has been staged previously. The work requires exceptional singing from the trio of mother Lia, father Siméon and prodigal son, Azaël with highly-celebrated past exponents of these roles. It’s a hard ask of students, however talented. Barlow also decided to add characters representing the older brother, Emmanuel, not at all happy at his errant younger brother’s return, and his wife Yolande, as well as a faithful servant, Sol. These artists were included in the chorus finale and also sang with the final trio, making it a sextet, which assisted the story. Unfortunately, within the musical lines available, there was limited time for the older brother to first reject and then accept his sibling, weakening the ending somewhat, though the final tableau at the table, with exquisite lighting, worked well.

L’enfant prodigue. Photograph © Nick Morrissey, supplied by QCGU  

Iain Henderson made a splendid fist musically of Azaël, his ringing tenor especially touching in the duet with his mother, a highlight of the piece. As Lia, Naomi Bakker was dramatically good but struggled sometimes vocally and her French diction was difficult to comprehend. With a lovely warm timbre, baritone Oliver Boyd was a solid Simeon, believable in his agonising over whether or not to forgive his son.

However, the setting for the Debussy failed to ignite the imagination, in part due to the static nature of the work as well as to a single realistic setting for both works, in a period setting that seemed archaic. While the basic set worked okay for the Ravel, due mostly to the exciting visual additions, it appeared dull and confusing for the Debussy. The garden scene, being set on a green strip at the front of the stage had no clear line of delineation with the house behind, with cast seeming to wander in and out of the two spaces. Such wonderful impressionistic music created by these two composers deserved visual representation that was decidedly more interesting and innovative.

Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University’s Opera Double Bill is the Conservatorium Theatre until September 5.


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