The Chicago Symphony Orchestra debuted in its three-week “French Reveries and Passions” festival with a whimsical program celebrating youth, childhood and fantasy. Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted works by Ravel and Debussy, joined by a stellar lineup of singers for the evening’s pièce de résistance- the CSO première of Ravel’s opera L'Enfant et les sortilèges.

The program opened with a symphonic version of the phrase “once upon a time” Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. Five fantastical worlds and characters are conjured in this work: Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb, Laideronette (Empress of the Pagodas), Beauty and the Beast, and an Enchanted Garden. The CSO was wonderfully evocative in each movement, but certain moments were particularly exceptional. Jennifer Gunn’s soaring piccolo runs in Tom Thumb perfectly captured the birds making off with Tom Thumb’s bread crumbs. In Laideronette, Ravel’s unapologetic Chinoiserie was helped along superbly by the percussion section (pentatonic riffs and satisfying gong sounds brought to mind a gamelan orchestra). Concertmaster Robert Chen played like royalty in his solos in Beauty in the Beast as well as The Enchanted Garden.

 While Mother Goose was a delight, the following work, Debussy’s La damoiselle élue, constituted the only blot on the evening. Written when the composer was steeped in the music Wagner (an unavoidable position for most composers in the 1880s), this lyric cantata takes somewhat after Parsifal. Featuring a mezzo soprano and soprano soloists with a women’s choir, La damoiselle élue seems inspired, perhaps unwittingly by Debussy, by the music for Kundry and the Flower Maidens from Parsifal. Some of the surges in the orchestra also brought to mind the sweeping orchestration in Tristan und Isolde. Perhaps it was this Wagnerian bent that made mezzo-soprano Elodie Méchain’s entrance difficult to hear over the CSO; the darker mezzo range, while beautiful, blended too well with all the other instruments playing.

Soprano Kate Royal seemed to fare better in terms of projecting over the orchestra. This slight issue of balance was compounded by other uncharacteristic mishaps in the CSO, including an errant squeak of the clarinet and a moment of sour horn intonation. These weren’t catastrophic problems, but one sensed that this piece was definitely not a standard in their repertory. In a thoughtful touch of staging, the supertitles for the Rossetti poem that inspired the Debussy composition were provided, allowing the audience to appreciate moments of clever text painting. My favorite was when Kate Royal sang about angels playing music in heaven, accompanied by an upward strum of the harp and the violins ascending to celestial pitches.

Supertitles proved helpful again in L'Enfant et les sortilèges. In addition to providing a translation, a graphic of each character the singers were portraying was projected; for a concert production of an opera this was beneficial. A pair of oboes opened the opera (with double bass interjections, played with suitable obnoxiousness by Alexander Hanna) with a wandering, listless sort of melody that perfectly evoked the boredom of a naughty child, sung by Chloé Briot. Briot had the audience laughing right away at the antics of the child. After Méchain’s chastising Mother (no trouble with balance this time) punished the mischievous child with a bleak dinner, he went on a destructive rampage around his room, breaking various possessions.

In a magical twist, the damaged objects came to life. A sofa (Marianne Crebassa) and armchair (Eric Owens) shared a mellifluous duet, before a grandfather clock (Stephane Dégout) sang a comical number quite virtuosic in its swift, mechanic pace. A Wedgwood teapot (Manuel Nũnez Camelino) and Chinese teacup (Méchain) sang a duet in broken English and pseudo-Chinese, respectively. They shared a short dance that was highly amusing for the audience and the CSO members sneaking peeks while they played. After that duet, Marie-Eve Munger’s warbling character, The Fire, threatened to steal the show, such was her command of the voice’s highest registers. A parade of characters continued throughout the opera, and all were very funny and performed with aplomb. The cat duet (Crebassa and Dégout) was a standout, as was Nunez’s pontificating math teacher, spouting meaningless arithmetic.

All the while, the CSO performed the score very effectively. In particular, the fiendish woodwind writing was quite thrilling. Guest principal flutist Samuel Coles, impressive throughout the evening, was commanding in the opera, and Jennifer Gunn’s searing piccolo playing again deserves commendation. Salonen conducted the varying moods of the score, from soft lilt to incisive, precise beat, with unflagging commitment and energy. This was a powerful collaboration between singers, orchestra and conductor. A testament to their prowess was the rapt, completely engaged audience. Any difficulties in ensemble or staging were totally obscured by the sheer fun of this opera. I look forward to seeing where the “French Reveries and Passions” festival builds from here.