L’Enfant et les sortilèges

Emily Kilpatrick

Nowhere is Maurice Ravel’s ability to conjure up the world of a child more vividly revealed than in the web of fairytale and reality, imagination and intense sensation that is woven through his opera L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Enchantments).

The opera’s libretto, by the French novelist Colette, was drafted following a commission from Jacques Rouché, the visionary director of the Opéra de Paris. In mid-March 1916 Colette sent her sketch to Rouché, who offered it first to Paul Dukas and then to Stravinsky; barely a fortnight earlier, Ravel had left for the Western Front as an army driver. That September Ravel, serving somewhere near Verdun, was offered the third refusal, but although a copy of Colette’s text was mailed, it never reached him. Ravel finally received and accepted the commission only in the spring of 1917, and it was not until well after the end of World War One that he began work. ‘Oh! Cher ami, when, oh when, the Divertissement pour ma...petite-fille?’ wrote Colette to Ravel in the summer of 1923. If he didn’t get a move on, this work that she had first conceived as a ‘Divertissement for my daughter’, was going to turn into one for her granddaughter (petite-fille) instead.

In the spring of 1924, with a première for the new opera confirmed at the Théâtre de Monte Carlo (rather than in Paris, as originally foreseen), Ravel seriously set to work on completing L’Enfant. That summer he wrote, ‘I’m only leaving the job to take some food, or to walk a few kilometres in the forest when I feel as if my head’s going to explode,’ and in November, ‘I’m seeing nobody but my frogs, my Negros, my shepherds and other insects.’ Variously beset by flu, exhaustion, concert tours, an infected finger, drawn-out contractual negotiations, and the travails of orchestration and proofing, his months of frantic effort eventually paid off. The première took place in Monte Carlo as planned on 21 March 1925, and was a triumph. Arthur Honegger called the opera ‘a brilliant success’, and the ecstatic reviewer of the Journal de Monaco wrote that ‘M[onsieur] Ravel was the object of prolonged ovations, when, from the heights of the royal box, he appeared three times....to bow to the audience.’

As the curtain rises on L’Enfant et les sortilèges, a pair of wandering oboes evokes the boredom and restlessness of a Child stuck at his desk: fed up with his lessons, he declares he would rather go for a walk, eat up all the cakes, yell at everyone... His mother enters and reproaches him for his laziness; his only response is to stick out his tongue, and he is condemned to his room until dinnertime. After his mother leaves, the furious Child embarks on a rampage, tearing the pendulum from the clock, the wallpaper from the wall and the pages from his storybook, smashing the tea set and upending the boiling kettle, pulling the cat’s tail and jabbing the caged squirrel with his pen. But as he sinks, ‘satiated with devastation’, in an armchair, ‘O surprise!’ the chair, ‘hobbling like an enormous toad’, gets up and walks away. One by one all the injured objects come to life, reproaching the Child for his destructive acts.

‘There’s a bit of everything in [L’Enfant]’, Ravel said, ‘you’ll see... there’s Massenet, Puccini,...American [jazz and operetta] and Monteverdi!’ Thus, the lumbering armchairs dance a minuet in the style of Louis XV, the timbre of a harpsichord eerily conjured by the ‘luthéal’ (an attachment to the piano mechanism with several different ‘stops’ transforming the timbre); the Clock’s mechanism runs down in the manner of Offenbach’s doll; and the swaggering foxtrot of the Wedgwood Teapot merges with the chinoiseries of the Teacup – ‘may a great gust from the music hall stir up the dust of the Opéra!’, wrote the librettist to the composer. The Fire emerges in swirling Donizettian coloratura, and the Shepherds and Shepherdesses of the mutilated wallpaper dance an antique pastorale. With the ‘adorable fairytale Princess’ of his torn storybook the Child sings an impassioned duet (here are his Puccinian echoes), before lamenting her disappearance in a brief and poignant little aria redolent of Massenet. ‘A little old man’ (Arithmetic personified) and his chorus of Numbers then appear, beating out a chant of impossible sums in manic parody of the 19th-century catalogue aria.

The seductive meowed duet of the two Cats leads the Child into the starlit Garden of the opera’s second half and a ravishing chain of waltzes: the Dragonfly’s tautly eloquent lament for her lost mate, the skimming, stammering flight of the Bat, the wordless dance of the Frogs (spangled with hints of Ravel’s earlier Valses nobles et sentimentales and La valse) and the passionate lament of the Squirrel for her lost freedom. The Child, tired, miserable and scared, and brought at last to realise the consequences of his wrongdoing, calls ‘in spite of himself’ for his mother. His helpless cry ‘Maman!’ ignites the creatures’ rage, but as they turn on him a little squirrel is injured, and the Child binds the wound before collapsing to the ground. Suddenly, there is a ‘profound silence, stupor’. As a hesitant, tripping bass line gradually gathers confidence and moves up through the orchestra, the creatures try, with increasing vigour, to repeat the word the Child has sobbed: ‘Maman!’ A light appears in the window, and the Mother’s first entry is recalled by the full orchestra, before the animals bear the Child towards the house, singing a gentle fugal chorus in his praise. The wandering oboe melody of the opera’s opening returns, now doubled by two violins and anchored firmly in the major mode, and the ‘Maman!’ motif is recalled one last time, now gloriously transformed into a perfect close: as the Child sings ‘Maman!’ in loving relief, the audience too can exhale at last. 

In the preface to her novels My Mother’s House and Sido, Colette wrote: ‘I always remained in touch with the character who, little by little, has dominated all the rest of my work:... my mother.’ Ravel was similarly devoted to his own mother, whose death in January 1917 largely prompted the creative paralysis that beset him in the immediate post-war period. Both Colette’s mother (who died in 1912) and Ravel’s are seemingly memorialised in L’Enfant et les sortilèges, their children’s moving tribute to maternal, filial and pantheistic tenderness and love. 

After its successful Monte Carlo première, L’Enfant received a more turbulent Parisian welcome in early 1926. Although successful productions in Brussels, Prague, Vienna and San Francisco soon followed, the opera was not seen again in the French capital during Ravel’s lifetime. ‘It would be good if we could finally hear my music in silence’, he said wistfully to his pupil and friend Manuel Rosenthal in 1936. Only in 1939 would L’Enfant be mounted at the Opéra de Paris with Jacques Rouché at last directing the work he had commissioned more than two decades earlier. 

Now firmly established as one of the most beloved of French operas, the blending of song and dance, popular music and classical tradition in L’Enfant also captures in miniature the evolution of opera itself. In its entrancing juxtaposition of musical idioms – where bitonality rubs shoulders with hints of Massenet and Monteverdi, and 18th-century opera-ballet nods to the music hall of the 1920s – the opera also paints a compelling portrait of an era, where dialogues of destruction and reparation, modernism and nostalgia are focused through the stubborn small figure of the opera’s title and his pathway to wisdom and repentance. 

Further Reading