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Steve Schwartz, January 2011

La chanson de la terre. Most writers on Ravel like to mention his fascination with precision and with clockwork toys and then go on to draw analogies to his music. Certainly Ravel ruthlessly strove for musical elegance, to the point where his output remained small, and artifice inspired him.

Ravel wrote two operas: the farce L’heure espagnole (1911), and this miniature fairy tale. He began working on the music in 1920 but didn’t complete it until 1925, and then only under the pressure of an immediate deadline. Colette supplied the libretto in 1918 without knowing who would set it. It’s a deliberately small-scale story about a naughty child who has a destructive fit of temper, wounds his pet squirrel, pulls the cat’s tail, tears up his schoolbooks, breaks china, and shreds the wallpaper with the fireplace poker. His mother confines him to his room. The objects he has mistreated become alive and refuse to serve him or to play with him. He goes out into the garden and the animals first flee from him and then menace him. He sees the squirrel he has wounded, and, struck with remorse, binds up its wound. He realizes that what he has treated as objects have lives and thus becomes a moral being. In the words of William Blake, “everything that lives is holy, life delights in life.”

Colette regarded her work as “modest.” When she heard Ravel’s music during a run-through, she exclaimed that Ravel had lifted her efforts to a level she felt beyond her. She needn’t have been so hard on herself. Her libretto tapped into Ravel’s deep emotional ties to childhood. Their collaboration produced one of the most profound works of the 20th century and certainly one of the most purely French.

The opera divides into two large parts. In the first, Colette sets the basic situation and shows the child’s thoughtless cruelties on, mainly, inanimate objects. Even the squirrel and the cat, because they have no voice, become little more than objects. For each object, Ravel provides almost a vaudeville turn, perhaps influenced by Satie and Les Six, ranging through popular styles and dances: habanera, fox-trot, bransles, and so on. The grandfather clock harrumphs and complains. The (British) teapot speaks a fractured English, including “I punch your nose.” The Chinese teacup sings pentatonically. The cats meow to one another. The arithmetic book, in the form of a little old man, keeps spouting algebra problems along the lines of “If two trains leave Cleveland for Chicago two hours apart …” and the ciphers themselves get in the act. The second part takes place in the family garden—domesticated nature. The frogs sing and dance—not lumpily, as you might expect, but with exquisite grace. A forlorn dragonfly looks for her mate, which the child has stuck with a pin to the wall of his room. A bat searches for his mate the child has killed in play and mourns for his children. The squirrel scorns the child for keeping him in a cage, when he wanted only to be free. Among the living creatures, the child learns to suffer with them. When he binds up the wound of the squirrel he harmed, the animals also have a revelation: the child is basically good.

One expects bewitching orchestration from Ravel, but in this opera, he surpasses himself. The magical opening of two solo oboes in organum and occasional sighs from harmonics in the bass fiddles burrow deep inside you. The opening to the second part—birds in the night-time garden—is simply one of the most beautiful in all Ravel, especially with, of all things, a slide whistle depicting the owl’s hoot. In the second part, Ravel leaves pastiche behind for music that sings from the bone. This part lifts the opera from the charge of chic clockwork. The climax comes at the end—the highest musical poetry in nature’s hymn to the child, and the child’s own benediction as he calls, “Maman.”

This recording isn’t bad. I can pick nits. Some of the singers do what I’d call Full Frontal Opera, which might be fine for Verdi, Puccini, and Wagner but misses the mark in Ravel. Julie Boulianne has an excellent voice, but she sounds less like a naughty boy and more like Tosca, for some reason speaking French. Kevin Short, doubling as the armchair and a tree, has a wobble so wide, you’re not often sure what note he thinks he’s singing. Again, that might be fine for Puccini, but not for the Mozartean melodic precision Ravel demands. My favorites are Agathe Martel (the fairy-tale princess), Geneviève Després (Mother, the dragonfly, and the squirrel), and especially Philippe Castagner (the arithmetic man, the teapot, and the tree frog), all of whom have a wonderful sense of French style (all Canadiens). To get through this opera at all I think demands a high musical level. This is a good performance at a cheap price. Lack of a libretto is part of the cost of that cheap price. I think the libretto worth knowing.

Shéhérazade is an altogether different kettle of fish. Written in 1903, it’s Ravel Luxe—settings of three poems by Tristan Klingsor. The three settings evoke Western fantasies of oriental sensuousness, especially the first, “Asie,” which goes through one orientalist trope after another. In “La flûte enchantée,” a woman listens to the flute of her lover, while her elderly husband sleeps. It moves superbly from mood to mood—from again languor to excited anticipation and back to languor again. There’s a hint of sadness as well, of longing unsatisfied—a haiku of emotion that implies far more than it says. Both the languor and the indirection carry over to the final song, “L’indifferent” (the indifferent one). The speaker stands in the doorway and wants a handsome stranger to enter, but he moves on. This poem also exudes a great deal of sexual ambiguity. You’re not sure of the speaker’s gender, since the speaker continually stresses the young man’s femininity. The orchestra is golds, velvets, and satins—rich, gorgeous stuff. Julie Boulianne’s full mezzo is more than welcome here, and Willis and his Tennessee troubadors provide a sensitive accompaniment. Boulianne’s account of Shéhérazade is very good indeed on its own.

Ronald E. Grames
Fanfare, November 2009

The orchestral work is colorful, if not quite in French colors, and presented in beautiful detail with potent bass. Boulianne is a mature-sounding (and feminine) Child, but she begins with convincing boredom and petulance and is beguiling throughout…Pick of the cast is bass Kevin Short, a marvelously gruff Armchair and a fiercely unhappy Tree. Philippe Castagner is almost as fine in the tenor roles, especially as the pugnacious Wedgewood Teapot…Ian Greenlaw is an amusingly distraught Clock; Kirsten Gunlogson a whimsical Chinese Cup…The combined Nashville and Chicago choristers create a fine wallpaper pastoral, touching backyard animals, and a tender if not ideally coordinated final apotheosis. To complete the CD, Julie Boulianne sings a lovely Shéhérazade…those seeking a budget L’enfant should be pleased with this release.

Neil Crory
Opera Canada, October 2009

Timing, as they say, is everything. How unfortunate then that this fine Naxos recording of Maurice Ravel’s 1925 “lyric fantasy” should be released at the same time as EMI’s star-studded recording with Sir Simon Rattle…but this Naxos budget recording featuring the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Alastair Willis should not be ignored. Willis’s soloists are largely Francophone, and while they may not be household names, they rise to their tasks naturally, singing with Gallic charm and flair. Just listen to Canadian mezzo Julie Boulianne’s gorgeous “Toi, le Cœur de la Rose.” Besides Boulianne in the pivotal role as the Child, the cast includes several other outstanding young Canadian artists, notably mezzo Geneviève Després in her multiple roles as Mother, Dragonfly and Squirrel; soprano Cassandra Prévost as Fire and the Nightingale; and soprano Agathe Martel as the Princess and the Bat. Canadian-American tenor Philippe Castagner also enlivens the action with his characterful, animated portrayals of the Little Old Man and the Tree Frog…As a bonus, Naxos offers a compelling version of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, also with Boulianne as soloist.

Mike Birman
Audiophile Audition, August 2009

Ravel only composed two short operas during his career of which L’Enfant et les Sortileges (The Child and the Spells) was the second. Completed in 1925, it is based on the text for a ballet scenario by the French writer Colette. Ravel is famous for his brilliant use of orchestration and this work is no exception. It has a large orchestra with many unusual instruments. Some of the strangest instruments include a wind machine, a whip, a ratchet and a cheese grater. This seems appropriate for a work of fantasy in which everyday objects like a chair, teapot and grandfather clock come to life and sing. Some productions of this work that I’ve seen include more ballet elements, reflecting the origin of this work’s libretto by Colette…It is beautifully sung and played by the soloists and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under Alastair Willis, however. The CD also includes Ravel’s 1903 three song cycle Sheherazade…These two works are often combined because they are both fantasies. Ravel depicts The Arabian Nights in his music which is often dreamy and mysterious. It is sung with the proper feeling of reverie by mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne, and is one of the best performed versions of the piece that I’ve heard.

The sound on this CD is clear and just a little distant. That may be a deliberate attempt by the Naxos engineers to match the sound with the material. It is an effective combination as we are constantly reminded of the nature of the music.

Gregory Keane
Limelight, July 2009

This CD elegantly teams works by two of Ravel’s most important sources of inspiration: the enchantment of the Orient. L’Enfant et les sortilèges, translated as ‘The Child and the Spells’, is based on a libretto by Colette and tells of a fractious child who is taught the error of his ways by the objects and victims, both animate and inanimate, of his petulant cruelty. This gem of an opera usually comes up trumps in the recording studio and this performance and recording are no exception. The Nashville Orchestra is a vast improvement on the sort of obscure ensembles which often blighted earlier Naxos recordings. The combined choirs and soloists are also fine. Every bar of this work is perfect but I particularly enjoyed the dialogue between the rather belligerent English teapot and the more refined tea cup, to the same tune as The Five O’Clock Foxtrot, and the ‘Chorus of the Shepherds and Shepherdesses’ to the accompaniment of pipes and tabor and sounding reminiscent of Bizet’s farandole. Julie Boulienne, who sings the role of the child in the opera, is less successful as soloist in Shéhérazade. Her voice seems a little too bright for this veiled, sensual score and she also sings rather loudly at times. Dame Janet Baker and Jennie Tourel are the ones to have.

Charles H Parsons
American Record Guide, July 2009

Willis guides his Nashville forces with a jazzy exuberance mixed with delicacy that is just right. The singers are all robust, with a kind of American ferocity that would frighten any child…Julie Boulianne is a most masculine sounding mezzo Child. Many compliments to her for her touchingly-beautiful aria ‘Toi, le coeur de la rose’. The lovely dark-voiced Princess of Agathe Martel complements Boulianne quite well. Cassandre Prevost is winningly bright as The Fire and The Nightingale. The incisive Little Old Man of Philippe Castagner has a lot of French flair but sounds recorded in an acoustic too distant and different from the other singers. Castagner’s Frog is brilliant in voice and closer recorded. The Cats of Kirsten Gunlogson and Ian Greenlaw are an odd pairing, she a delightful, teasing feline, he too human sounding. Greenlaw’s Clock needs a brighter “Ding!” Kevin Short is an impressive Tree. Genevieve Despres is warmly emotional as the wounded Squirrel. Of course, all of the singers except Boulianne sing multiple roles. Everything comes together for a radiant Finale.

In an 18-minute+ bonus, Boulianne is heard in a rich, voluptuous rendition of Ravel’s three-part song-cycle, Sheherazade.

Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice, June 2009

The Nashville has recorded two operas under Alastair Willis: Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges (8.660215) and Menotti’s TV perennial, Amahl and the Night Visitors (8.669019). The Ravel is a masterpiece, and not the least impressive aspect of Nashville’s performance is the fine singing. Mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne does a fine job with the composer’s Shéhérazade on the same disc. The Menotti is also well performed.

Patrick O'Connor
Gramophone, June 2009

Just the first few notes of the introduction to Ravel’s opera always cast their spell. When Colette, who had written the libretto without knowing who would eventually compose the music, heard the first full play-through, she was overcome: “I had not foreseen that a wave of orchestrated sound, starred with nightingales and fireflies would raise my modest work up to such heights.” In many ways L’enfant et les sortilèges is an ideal opera for recording. The imagination can create stage pictures of the fire, the shepherds, the trees and the animals, and a balance between orchestra and voice is possible that will do justice to Ravel’s orchestral effects—what Ned Rorem once called “lusciously carefree, with its daft blues and dizzy foxtrots”...Simon Rattle has long held the work in affection: I remember hearing him conduct a concert performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall back in 1982, and later the Glyndebourne production, designed by Maurice Sendak. In the new recording his approach is somewhat more symphonic, especially compared with the Naxos CD, taken from a live performance in Nashville, which has a slightly earthier feel to it. The line-up of soloists in Berlin could hardly be starrier but the American group does not lose face in comparison. The roles are shared out differently. Ravel stipulated that the same singer ought to sing the Fire, the Princess and the Nightingale—as Annick Massis does for Rattle, whereas in Nashville these are shared between Cassandre Prévost and Agathe Martel. As the child, Magdalena Kožená manages to seem suitably boyish and wilful, Julie Boulianne has a more mature sound. The fill-up items are well chosen: Ma Mère I’Oye, lusciously played by the Berlin Philharmonic for Rattle, Shéhérazade done with feeling by Boulianne for Alastair Willis and the Nashville Symphony.

Stephen Eddins, May 2009

Given the number of very fine recordings of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, it’s perhaps surprising that one of the very finest, most stylish, and idiomatic performances should have its roots firmly planted in the American heartland. Alastair Willis, leading the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus, members of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and the Chattanooga Boys Choir, conjures up a truly magical version of the opera. This is the result of a happy confluence of all the necessary elements: exceptional soloists who may not yet be international superstars, but who sing beautifully and are fully invested in bringing their roles to life; a thoroughly responsive chorus, exquisite orchestral playing, extraordinarily fine, nuanced engineering; and above all, Willis’ loving attention the details of the score and his ability to bring an exhilarating musical and dramatic coherence to an opera that in lesser hands can seem quaintly episodic. This is a version of the opera that is brightly colored, whose incidents are dramatically charged and larger-than-life, just as they would be experienced from the perspective of The Child. Willis fully exposes the gift for humor that Ravel demonstrates in his brilliant and occasionally wacky orchestration and choral and solo writing. About half of the young singers who, judging from their bios, seem poised on the cusp of significant careers, are French Canadian, which probably accounts for the idiomatic authenticity of the performance, which easily outstrips that of some far more famous international casts. The choruses bring just the right loopy abandon to their depiction of the various groups of animals without ever stepping over the line into caricature, and their final madrigal is absolutely ravishing. The disc is filled out with an equally vivid performance of Schéhérazade, featuring a radiant, shimmering performance by mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne, who also plays The Child in the opera.

The sound is fabulous. Apart from a brief balance problem in the first few measures of the opera, where the string bass’ harmonics under the oboe duet sound tentative and are barely audible, details of orchestration pop out with sometimes startling, but entirely appropriate vividness. Highly recommended.

Dominy Clements
MusicWeb International, April 2009

This release has of course the benefit of economy on its side, and an admirable secret weapon which I shall come to later…performances and recording are technically of a very high order. There is no libretto [for L'enfant et les sortilèges] in the booklet, but the notes are extensive and include a detailed track by track description of the action which more than adequately makes up for the absence of the actual sung words…What this disc does have however, is a very fine recording of Ravel’s Shéhérazade…There are numerous distinguished recordings which will always retain classic status in this work, but Julie Boulianne’s singing is gorgeously expressive, filled with the tensions and moments of resignation and contrasts of joy and tragedy in each of the three songs. This, coupled with a suitably opulent orchestral sound from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, makes for a version of this piece to which I would happily listen; long and often…

On An Overgrown Path, March 2009

In today's edition [of The Guardian] Andrew Clements reviews two new recordings of Ravel's sublime L'Enfant et les sortilèges. One is from the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle on EMI, the other from the Nashville Symphony under Alastair Willis on Naxos. The preferred version is the one from Naxos.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Having heard all of the currently available recordings of L’Enfant et les sortilèges, I can assure you that none will give greater pleasure than this from Nashville. Taking a look at the illustrious list of performers who have already committed it to disc, that might seem a big claim, but for me the disc’s main attraction is the feel of a team rather than just a gathering of famous soloists. From the names I presume the cast gathered in Nashville are mainly French-Canadians and they instinctively shape the nuances of words, with the final ingredient coming from an orchestra that sounds more French than today’s top French ensembles. In the role of the naughty child, Julie Boulianne aims her voice between that of a child and Ravel’s more demanding vocal requirements without any seams showing. Maybe I should not pick out any one further singer, for in truth there is not a weak link anywhere, but for me Philippe Castagner’s Arithmetic Man is an absolute jewel. Even more important is that they sing their improbable rôles without those silly caricatures I have heard elsewhere. The conductor, Alastair Willis, admirably paces the score, pushing forward with real urgency when appropriate and whipping up some admirable climatic moments. The disc is completed with Boulianne singing Shéhérazade, and if she does not possess that langourous and ravishing quality of Regine Crespin in her legendary recording, she does create a feeling of sadness in the unrequited love in a very ordinary girl, which I find distinctly moving. I would want others, but it’s a view I could not be without. Add to all of these plus points a sound engineering that carries impact and clarity and yields nothing to any other recording, and you have my firm recommendation.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group