Name: L’enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells)
Composer: Maurice Ravel
Librettist: Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, known mononymously as Colette
First performed: 21 March 1925 at Opéra de Monte-Carlo, Monaco
In one sentence: a badly behaved child is taught a lesson by his possessions as they come to life and animals that can talk.
Famous characters: the main character is L’enfant, the misbehaving boy whose name we never learn. He is supported by Mamon, as well as a cast that includes household items and storybook characters damaged by L’enfant and talking animals whom he has injured. French superstar mezzo-soprano Marie-Thérèse Gauley sang the role of the child at the opera’s premiere in 1925.
Music you might recognise: Ravel’s score was inspired by the new American music of the time: ragtime and jazz. It follows the style of Gershwin and American operettas, incorporating jazz, polkas and waltzes; it even makes use of a cheese grater as an instrument. Listen out for ‘Duo miaulé’ (Meowed Duet) by the two cats; this is often seen as a parody of Wagner.
In part one, a young boy is confined to his room for being lazy. There, he takes his anger out on various household items, such as the sofa and armchair, a teacup and teapot, and storybooks, as well as harming animals nearby.
The furniture, crockery and so on, as well as characters from the books, come to life to punish the child and sing of how he has mistreated them. The Grandfather Clock, for example, complains at the damage done to him, while the Teapot and Cup threaten revenge.
In the second part of this one-act opera, the L’enfant is led out to the garden by a pair of cats. There, a tree groans at the wound L’enfant inflicted on it the day before and the garden is filled with plants and animals singing of the injuries the boy has caused them.
The animals and plants all come together to attack the child, but in the affray a squirrel is hurt. L’enfant bandages the animal’s paw and this act of kindness saves him. The fairytale creatures carry the boy back to his home, where he is reunited with his mother.
An anonymous illustration of part one of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, as performed at the Paris première at the Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique on 1 February 1926 (via Wikimedia Commons).