It was an ingenious idea of the director, Stephen Barlow, and the conductor, Nicholas Cleobury, to combine in one program these two pieces, one by Debussy and the other by his contemporary Ravel, both of which deal with the relationship between protective mothers and errant sons. Debussy’s scène lyrique, “L’enfant Prodigue” (The Prodigal Son), a product of his student years at the Paris conservatoire, was the score with which he won the Prix de Rome (at his third attempt). Ravel’s setting of a libretto by Colette as a one-act opera, “L’enfant et les sortilèges”, about a nasty, naughty boy who tears up his books and tortures animals and plants, and is then haunted by the apparitions of the things he’s damaged, was written towards the end of his life. Both inhabit the same sound world of transparent, non-string-dominated orchestral textures – and both start, as does Debussy’s opera “Paellas et Mélisnade”, with an open fifth. Yet their harmonic languages are worlds apart.
In 1884, when L’enfant Prodigue was first performed, Debussy was yet to travel to Bayreuth with his friend Chausson, a voyage which was to have the most profound effect upon his music. So the harmonic idiom of the piece is firmly rooted in that of such composers as Massenet (a wise choice, that, since Massenet was one of the judges of the Prix de Rome competition…). But he and Chausson had already begun to play Wagner’s operas in piano duet reduction, and the closing scene of L’enfant Prodigue quotes, blatantly and inappropriately, from the overture to Die Meistersinger and from the close of Parsifal. Inappropriately, because nothing could be less grandiose, more domestic and small-scale, than Debussy’s depiction of the repentance of the prodigal son and the ending of his mother’s grief at his long absence.
The mother was sung by Naomi Bakker, who, once she got into her stride, charmed the audience both with her limpid, flexible soprano and with the touching simplicity of her acting. Oliver Boyd, the baritone who sang the much smaller role of the father, also impressed, but It was Iain Henderson, the tenor who sang the son, who for me was the stand-out performer in this piece. His part is perhaps not a very grateful one, being mainly concerned with his repentance (and are tenors ever very good at repentance?) but his singing was clear and expressive, and as for his acting – well, he really did seem to have been out on the tiles for weeks!
Indeed the evening was a display of wonderful vocal talent. There was not a weak link in the cast of either piece. And it was an unalloyed pleasure to hear only really young yet also really well-trained singers – it reminded me that when The Marriage of Figaro was first performed, the woman who sang the Countess was sixteen.
It is not easy to produce the Debussy piece, as it was not envisaged for the stage at all. Stephen Barlow’s was unforced, low-key, set simply in a bourgeois drawing-room of the period. He added three characters to the three specified by Debussy, including the elder, virtuous brother so important in the biblical story, and these three sang in the closing scene, doubling the original three and thus effectively turning it into a chorus. The Ravel was performed on the same set, and this helped to suggest that the subject of the two pieces overlapped. Barlow reinforced this by adding in both operas the suggestion that the sons’ recalcitrance had something to do with the sea. To me, though not quite avoiding the cliché of the French sailor, the reference was Baudelaire’s failed attempt to run away to sea, or Gaugin’s successful trip to Tahiti.
The production of the Ravel was, in complete contrast to the sobriety of the Debussy, exuberant, busy, wildly imaginative, and altogether brilliant – in fact I do not hope ever to see a better production of this opera. At no point was it unfaithful either to Colette’s text of to Ravel’s score, with their astonishing depiction of the dream-states of excitement, fear, and grief. This is one of Ravel’s most amazing scores, an anti-Wagnerian opera in every possible aspect, where everything happens so fast you have no sooner grasped on moment of magic when the next is upon you, and you feel tossed, like the naughty boy, from one terrible effect to another. The orchestra, conducted with love and intensity by the obviously popular Nicholas Cleobury, didn’t miss a trick throughout this kaleidoscopic labyrinth of a score. And the staging, choreographed brilliantly by Helen Moore, didn’t fall into any of the traps of such magical scenes (one thinks with shudders of some first scenes of the Magic Flute, or the Nutcracker ballet) – the trees that the boy had damaged, the numbers of the arithmetic book he’d torn up, and the squirrels whose tails he’d wanted to cut off, were danced by the singers, but the dragonflies he’d pinned to the wall were were beautiful cut-outs, and the copulating cats (bitonally ridiculing Rossini’s Cat duet), were puppets controlled by the singers of those roles. These differences reflected accurately the difference in orchestral textures of the various events.
There are countless tiny roles in this opera, and last night all of them, without exception, added to the overall excellence of the performance. I would, though, single out one as both unusual and particularly effective – Anna Stephens’ Princess. She’s been torn out of a book, leaving her prince behind, and so is usually portrayed as vengeful, like the other creatures who torment the boy. But here she was wistful, and only mildly reproachful, which both gave us an island in the hectic disturbance of most of the scene, and allowed her voice to sing with great purity of line, so as to act in a proto-sexual way on the imagination of the boy, telling him he’d missed an opportunity that might never come again.
But once again, the son was the star. I have never seen such a convincingly played pants role as Xenia Puskarz Thomas’. She played a petulant boy so perfectly – as we know, petulant girls don’t usually do things in quite the same way – I forgot she was a woman at all. And all with no distortion of her voice, which she used with no attempt to say, look at what a great singer I am, but put wholly at the service of her role. She is of the new generation of actor/singers who are changing the way we think of opera. And her French was maybe a notch better than the average for the night.
During the final scene of the Ravel, where the naughty boy has been changed by his experience and wants his mother again, Stephen Barlow finished the evening by bringing onstage the mother and son from L’enfant Prodigue. This was the final unifying touch of the pair of productions, indicating (but without overstatement) to the audience that the situations and emotions inherent in the two operas were in fact just two examples of the enormous challenges facing mothers and sons in all such relationships.
I would urge those of my readers who have the opportunity not to hesitate, but go and see this production. It was truly a revelation to me, and I cannot think of another opera school in the country which could have done it better.
Queensland Conservatorium presents
Opera Double Bill
Director Stephen Barlow
Venue: Conservatorium Theatre, Griffith University, South Bank QLD
Dates: 1, 3, and 5 Sept 2017
Tickets: $40 – $33