London Philharmonic Orchestra
It has become a platitude to enthuse about how creatively artists have responded to the restrictions on their livelihood brought about the pandemic, but it is nonetheless undeniable. However, this production of Ravel’s short opera, a modernist parable to a libretto by Colette brought vibrantly up-to-date, raises the bar to new heights.
Director Rachael Hewer – with the help of somewhere around 100 other people – has made a version of a work that is a musical delight, if very much of its time in other ways, into a profound commentary on our times, at the end of which you may well find yourself choking back tears.
Objectively, it is an astonishing technical achievement. All the singers – and they range from well-known names (Karen Cargill is Maman) to youngsters in the early stages of their careers – recorded and filmed their parts at home, using the technology to hand. The 27 members of the LPO recorded the music in socially-distanced conditions, playing a reduced orchestration made by conductor Lee Reynolds.
Hewer and her technical team have taken the faces of their cast and chorus and put them into the animated world in which the production takes place, as seen from the perspective of the titular child, sung by Emily Edmonds and winningly performed on-screen by Amelie Turnage. On the bones of Colette’s French text, given fresh translation in subtitles by Hewer herself, much contemporary context is happily applied: the girl is unhappily home-schooling during lockdown, and the fantasy world she enters, through the screen of her laptop, includes a hospital ward with all the necessary PPE, a yoga class in the gym, a rolling news broadcast with subtitles becoming the headlines ticker-taping along the foot of the screen, and a Zoom meeting for the Dance of the Frogs, with all the now-familiar icons hand-drawn.
It is hard to believe that a full orchestra would serve Ravel’s highly-original score, with its elements of Broadway, cabaret and operetta, any better than the LPO musicians do here, and the singing is of a uniformly high standard, with brilliant solo turns (stratospheric stuff from Sarah Hayashi as The Fire) as well as the quite remarkable choral combination, given the way it came about.
Within those restrictions too, there is also some fine facial acting – Marcus Farnsworth’s child-hating armchair an early highlight, and Shuna Scott Sendall an animated gym-bunny cat.
Familiar London locations crop up in the animated world, but the film begins in a black and white version of the child’s domestic home, and ends, in glorious technicolour, in the world everyone involved wants to get back to, as a patchwork of gilded interiors of opera houses around the world fills the screen. All are empty, of course, with a single “ghost light” left burning.
To the closing choral lament, the animated characters begin to fill up the stalls, and L’enfant has the last word as she returns “home”, singing: “Maman!” It is at this point that strong men may well be reaching for their pocket square. Like I did.
Available on YouTube until December 16.