Youth was the key word for Seattle Symphony’s fresh, exuberant program at Benaroya Hall. Starting with Bizet’s buoyant Jeux d’enfants, continuing with Mozart’s early Piano Concerto no. 9 in E flat major, K.271, “Jeunehomme”, and ending with Ravel’s literally and figuratively magical one-act opera, L’Enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells). Music Director Ludovic Morlot, known for his intriguing programming, outdid himself with a summery breeze of a program that enchanted from beginning to end.

Though Georges Bizet composed Jeux d'enfants in the last few years of his short life, the work embodies all that is youthful, bright and sunny. The original twelve-movement piece written for piano duo is considered one of the prized examples of its genre. Bizet’s orchestral version contains five spirited movements, peppered with moments that are charmingly introspective but never heavy. Morlot kept the atmosphere light and airy, starting with the initial Marche, which evoked images of young boys shouldering toy rifles in Act 1 of Bizet’s masterpiece, Carmen; while Berceuse: La poupée was a gently lyrical rocking of the cradle. In Impromptu: La toupie, Morlot’s ensemble went like the wind, with balletic lightness and virtuosic energy. Morlot demonstrated his keen sensibilities, and the orchestra’s string section its velvety sound, in Duo: Petit mari, petite femme, ending with gusto in the Galop: Le bal.

In 1777,  at the age of 20, Mozart wrote his Piano Concerto no. 9 for a young French pianist, “Mlle. Jeunehomme,” thought to have been Victoire Jenamy, the daughter of Jean-Georges Noverre, a well-known ballet dancer and pianist. Despite his youth, in this work Mozart demonstrated all the characteristics of his more mature piano concerti. 22-year-old Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki seemed the perfect match for the piece; not only because of his natural talent and fresh, youthful approach but because he showed a remarkably mature awareness of Mozartean style. His proficient technique was also impressive, especially in the initial Allegro, and his winsome sensitivity was engaging in the Andantino. The passagework in the Rondo: Presto seemed rushed; one would have liked him to take his time and enjoy the notes a bit more. In keeping with the youthful theme of the evening, Lisiecki treated the audience to an encore: a poignant rendering of Träumerei from Schumann’s Kinderszenen.

Without a doubt the pièce de résistance of the evening was Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Here, Morlot was in his element, lovingly recreating the score and shepherding the massive assembly of soloists, choruses and orchestra with Gallic panache. Morlot fashioned the magical atmosphere of this symphonic tone poem, in which the composer had no qualms about quoting his own orchestral poème chorégraphique, La Valse, to accompany enchanted creatures dancing, in entrancing ways.

The production was huge and impressive. The work is often thought to be problematic because of its dramatic difficulties in effectively portraying supernatural elements on stage. The decision to do a semi-staged version was a good one. The singers, all dressed in black except for the child, who stood out in black and white, wore ingenious head sculptures to represent the characters they were playing. Designed by Zane Pihlstrom, the sculptures resembled confections made of delectably frosted spun sugar. Director Anne Patterson created a gorgeous background, with shimmering curtains comprised of strands of many colors, dazzlingly lit by designer Jeff Lincoln, on which were superimposed Adam Larsen’s imaginative projections, which pictured the characters symbolized by the head sculptures. The strands parted for the outdoor scene, lit with a green that perfectly embodied the emerald hue of the city in which this production took place.

The soloists, most of them triple cast, all of whom boast considerable experience on opera stages throughout the world, masterfully interpreted Colette’s ravishing text. Mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier was outstanding as the Child; dramatically compelling, her powerful voice cutting through the enormous orchestra. Rachele Gilmore was exceptional in the three demanding coloratura roles, and was astonishing in the freakishly high notes. 

The Seattle Symphony Chorale and Northwest Boychoir, expertly coached by Joseph Crnko, sang impressively, coaxing hushed sounds and complex effects in French: a multiply demanding task, to say the least. The boys were especially engaging and enthusiastic in their roles as nightmarish arithmetic digits.