School of Music performs dark, punk opera

Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges highlights horror, delight between reality and imagination

Jackie Mishol Jan 30, 2012

Audience members were met with twists and surprises with the School of Music’s production of Maurice Ravel’s short yet provocative L’enfant et les sortilèges. Opening last Thursday and running through the weekend, an intriguing fantasy land filled the Philip Chosky Theater in the Purnell Center for the Arts.

With a score by Ravel, libretto by Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, and English translation by Katharine Wolff, L’enfant et les sortilèges, or The Child and the Magic Spells, follows the chimerical journey of a defiant young boy. After turning his room upside down in a hysterical fit, the child’s inanimate household objects come to life to teach him a lesson. Much to his horror and surprise, the child is flung into a world of fantasy not unlike those of Alice in Wonderland or Beauty and the Beast.

However, the School of Music’s interpretation differentiates itself from these romps through bold artistic choices. Directed by Greg Lehane — a professor in the schools of drama and music — and musically directed and conducted by Andres Cladera — who received his master’s degree in orchestral conducting from Carnegie Mellon — L’enfant highlights the horror that mixes with delight in the blurred line between reality and childhood imaginings. Reveling in this darker side of the fantastical world, the production team and cast crafted a piece that offered a goth, punk twist to the characters.

The performers, dressed in gothic plaid, chains, fishnets, and Rocky Horror-esque makeup, were challenged to embody a harsher tone than is usually seen in the opera that began as a “fairy ballet.” A logistically difficult opera to begin with, L’enfant was also challenging in terms of casting needs, orchestration, and avoiding similarities to Disney’s tales of happy anthropomorphic toys and dancing objects.

Drama master’s students Britton Mauk and Lindsey Vandevier developed the phantasmagoric feel of the set and costume pieces, respectively. Their work created an eerie tone for the journey through the bizarre world of a child’s fantastical imaginings. However, while the essence of this absurdity did find its way into the piece, the potential to make L’enfant truly frightening was not completely realized. Despite attention to musical intricacies and spirited performances, the cheeriness of the music created a disconnect between the desired tone and the final effect.

The production was entertaining nonetheless and featured some stand-out performances. Senior voice major Gillian Hassert’s presence as The Mother commanded attention from the moment she stepped onstage. The humor and clowning moments of The Clock (senior voice major Martin Schreiner) as well as the Teapot (senior voice major Sean Pack) and The Chinese Cup (senior voice major Katherine Brandt) also stood out.

The strong physicality and comedic instincts of senior voice major Piers Portfolio’s Black Cat stole the show. The pairing with senior voice major Kathleen Griffin’s White Cat was delightful.

In the opening sequences, some of The Child’s (played by senior voice major Lauren Boyle on Thursday night) moments of discovery seemed contrived, while others seemed refreshingly genuine as the audience was allowed to discover with him; furthermore, vocal overlaps at the beginning and end of the piece with The Princess (senior voice major Meghan Gatti) were particularly striking, showing vocal strength. Senior voice majors Gaelyn Elliott Young, Tyler Alderson, and Fiona Ryder also gave particularly memorable performances.

And these moments contributed to making the show a night of fun for Carnegie Mellon students.

“To me, this production was definitely more enjoyable than the other operas that I have seen [here],” said sophomore music composition major Sean Salamon. “Much of this was due to the quality of the writing,” he added, “[as] the libretto avoided many [frustrating] common conceits of opera.” Sophomore voice major Scott Cuva agreed, “I was both shocked and amazed with how brilliantly written and performed this opera was. It is easily my favorite Carnegie Mellon opera I’ve seen to date.”

With regard to the production’s dark interpretation, some audience members found the choices to be more successful than others did. “There are two ways to approach this opera: comically overdone or tangibly dark,” Cuva added. “I believe the decision to do the latter was an extremely poignant decision on the part of the director.”

Design choices were specifically noted as successful in the play’s darker approach. First-year dramaturgy major Meg Martinez particularly enjoyed the strong aesthetics. “It really appeared to be the child’s dream world,” she said, “[and] was tinged by his guilt for what he had done.”

Others, such as senior directing major Christian Fleming, saw the opportunity for stronger choices to be made. “I think the choice to create a darker, more frightening world for the child to wind up in makes a lot of sense,” he said.

Regardless of the final effect, the choices engaged audience members and made them think. Opera, some of the performers said, gets a bad rap, and that’s something they wish would change.

Sophomore voice major and L’enfant ensemble member James Alexander focused on the storytelling opportunities opera creates. “I wish people knew how accessible it is. Opera is, like every art form, a representation of human emotion or analysis,” he explained. “The word ‘opera’ has a reputation for implying something is old, or haughty, but the things Puccini and Mozart wrote about are still very real, and still apply to us now.”

Hassert shared the sentiment: “I wish people knew that underneath concepts, loud voices, and occasionally women in horns with spears, opera is really just about telling moving stories ... and making people think.”