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DEBUSSY: L’Enfant Prodigue
RAVEL: L’Enfant et les Sortilèges 

CD Button Briot, Devieilhe, Devos, Gauvin, Pasturaud, Stutzmann; Alagna, Courjal, Lapointe; Choeur, Maîtrise and Orchestre de Radio France, Franck. Texts & translations. Erato CD 9029589692 (2)

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ANY COMPETENT performance of Ravel’s Enfant et les Sortilèges is sure to be heartily received. The composer’s fantastical account of a rebellious child’s dream is magical; it’s intricate, rich and demanding, even fragile, yet it proves almost foolproof. Performances invariably succeed enough to quicken the pulse and stir up gleeful emotion. The riot of inventiveness (inspired by Colette’s brilliant text) is parceled into the briefest servings, timed judiciously, ranging widely in effect—a remarkable blend of brilliance and tact.

There’s a bounce in Mikko Franck’s conducting on this live recording (paired on a two-disc set with Debussy’sEnfant Prodigue)—a pace that, instead of attracting attention, just helps each segment hit its mark, whether the subject is mischief or penitence, mathematics or cabaret, nature or surrealism. Details have been polished—rollercoaster chromatic runs, coloratura sparkle, comical blends of sound that are hard to connect to instruments, slinky ballroom or cabaret rhythms. It’s hard to decide whether instrumental coloring or the conductor’s pliant rhythms make the greater impact.

Because this is French comedy, it matters too that the cast—by birth and/or diligence—displays a natural command of the language, merging words and tones tightly, negotiating the quickest syllables with zest and relevant expression. Tones are bent and twisted for comic effect, but without coarseness or exaggeration. The voices in this live performance are richer than those often heard in this work, affording real luxury.

Jodie Devos and Nathalie Stutzmann masterfully handle three characters each, and Julie Pasturaud does four, including a lovely Écureuil. The Enfant is a versatile Chloé Briot (who for some reason disregards some double-p markings), and Jean-François Lapointe and Nicolas Courjal are both nimble and plush in their triple assignments. Sabine Devieilhe brings pulse, spirit and brilliance to Fire and the Nightingale, even with her occasionally brittle tone. The Radio France choirs and orchestra are exemplary. 

Debussy’s teenage one-act L’Enfant Prodigue is brief to the point of abruptness, with an economy of musical means that’s far plainer and more ascetic than Ravel’s. The piece is known primarily as the source of the soprano’s “Air de Lia” (sung intensely here by Karina Gauvin), in which the mother laments the absence of her son Azaël. He promptly returns, is recognized in a duet, and the work ends in modest jubilation. There’s no attempt by librettist Édouard Guinand to reinterpret or skew the parable, as André Gide did in his radical, contrarian story “Le Retour de l’Enfant Prodigue” (1907), adapted by Darius Milhaud as a cantata (1917). Debussy’s youthful work is more tentative and conventional than the Milhaud score, which roams widely in harmony and orchestration.

Even at this youthful age, however, Debussy wrote effectively for the voice; this performance is notable mainly for the fine singing of Roberto Alagna in the title role. His French is as convincing as ever, and his voice sounds fresh, without any of the harsh excesses heard in recent years. Kill the fatted calf! —David J. Baker 

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