Here's a heretical notion for you: Some operas are best enjoyed not in the theater but in the privacy of one's home. Maybe even, with the help of recordings, the privacy of one's mind.
I'm thinking of works whose evanescent nature is nearly always compromised by the realities of staging. Pieces like Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" (most of which seems to take place in a dream), Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen" (in which the principal characters are animals) and Ravel's "L'Enfant et les Sortileges," literally "The Child and the Sorceries."Particularly the last, which involves not only singing animals (cats, dragonflies, frogs, etc.) but trees, clocks and armchairs, even fire, all of which come to life to protest their treatment at the hands of the naughty boy of the title.
Needless to say, that's something of a dream, too, and one hard to conjure up outside the world of one's imagination. But I have to admit this 1987 Glyndebourne Festival video comes close, via a clever combination of film (including multiplane animation) and live action.
Indeed this production, designed by famed illustrator Maurice Sendak, walks the line between reality and unreality about as convincingly as one could wish. Witness the prancing numbers of the Arithmetic sequence, or the fire dance, in which the flames split and recombine around the room.
For the most part the fantasy element is also well sustained musically. As the title character, Cynthia Buchan never really persuades us she is a boy, but she does involve us in her reactions to what is going on around her. And although the vocal level is seldom up to that of the Maazel recording, on DG, conductor Simon Rattle artfully reinforces such things as the clattering-china orchestration in the teapot dance and the otherworldly piping of the shepherds' chorus. Ditto the sublime closing pages, which a prominent composer of my acquaintance once maintained he would have given anything to have written.
I find the singing in the accompanying "L'Heure Espagnole" also a notch below what one hears under Maazel, although Remy Corazza makes a memorable character of Torquemada the clockmaker; likewise Francois Loup's amusingly pompous Don Inigo. But here is a work that, given its sitcom scenario, gains immeasurably from being seen, and, again thanks to Sendak's wonderfully fanciful set designs (with the characters as lifesize clock figures), this production is a visual delight.
Of course the title, "The Spanish Hour," refers not only to Torquemada's profession but to the period of time each Thursday his wife can expect him to be out of the house. In that hour she welcomes a parade of
VIDEO would-be lovers (most of whom hide from one another in the clocks), only to end up with the happy-go-lucky mule driver, who at one point compares the workings of the female mind to the mystifying machinery around the shop.
The result is a wittily engaging opera buffa very much in the spirit of Mozart and Rossini but imbued with Ravel's unique sensitivity to and love for all things Spanish. Like "L'Enfant," moreover, it fits perfectly on one side of a laser disc. (The same performances are also available individually on tape, VHS or Beta, from Home Vision.)
Conductor Sian Edwards may not move the action quite as sharply as Maazel, but she does bring out the transparency and shimmer of the orchestral writing, very like the middle pages of "Daphnis" or the "Valse Nobles et Sentimentales," as well as its more langourous aspects.
But unlike "L'Enfance," it's not the music that has kept this piece alive as much as its theatrical appeal. And here, for once, the buyer can avail himself of either, neither or both.