Valentine’s Day fell during the most recent run of Philadelphia Orchestra performances, but the subscription program itself harkened back to Halloween. Principal guest conductor Stéphane Denève stacked the first half of the concert — titled “Sorcerers, Spells and Magic” — with music spooky and familiar: the overture to Die Zauberflöte, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and excerpts from John Williams’ Harry Potter film scores. After intermission came a complete performance of L’Enfant et les sortilèges, with soloists imported from the Metropolitan Opera.

Isabel Leonard © Deniz Saylan
Isabel Leonard
© Deniz Saylan

Ravel’s one-act opera sparkled in a semi-staged production by Stephanie Havey that smartly worked within the confines of Verizon Hall. Eschewing props and suggestive costumes, the singers used their bodies and voices to boisterously enact the various creatures and objects tortured by a naughty little boy (called the Child and sung here by Isabel Leonard), who gradually come to life and exact their revenge. In the prelude, Leonard’s Child scurried around the stage, manipulating limbs and displaying wanton disregard for anything but his own amusement.

Clad in pigtails and a Philadelphia Eagles sweatshirt, Leonard suggested youth, if not always boyishness. Her supple mezzo soprano, now darker and heftier than in the early days of her career, occasionally sounded too mature for a role she recorded in 2015. Likewise, Met coloratura Anna Christy’s trill sounded edgier and less secure than when she was a reigning Cunegonde in the dreamlike role of The Princess. Yet both women managed charming moments throughout, and Leonard successfully charted the Child’s evolution from scamp to sweetness in the opera’s final moments.

French tenor Mathias Vidal proved virtuosic as the tongue-twisting, onomatopoeic Monsieur Arithmetic — a personification of the homework ignored by the Child — and contralto Sara Couden brought a recitalist’s feeling for text in several roles, including the Child’s worried Mama. Baritone Yupeng Wang and soprano Meigui Zhang delighted in the sarabande for the reproachful Armchair and Sofa. Denève shaped a rich reading of the score, with lots of little details in the winds, percussion and low strings. The soloists had great partners in the Westminster Symphonic Choir and Philadelphia Boys Choir — the latter particularly effective as Monsieur Arithmetic’s promenading numbers.

Elsewhere, Denève offered intriguing interpretations that didn’t always coalesce. His Mozart had a touch of historical practice, with extreme variations in tempo and noticeable pauses between chords. The result often seemed disjointed, and the blaring, slightly out-of-tune brass frequently drowned out the delicate flutes and oboes. Similarly, the Dukas emerged as a wall of sound, its individual flavors muted. The Harry Potter suite contained some interesting elements — a foreboding celesta and beguiling violin scales played with pinprick delicacy, contrasted by cello pizzicato — but failed to capture my attention for a full fifteen minutes.

There was some romance on the bill at the February 14 matinee performance. During the standard pre-concert announcement, in full view of the audience, trumpet player Anthony Prisk proposed to Julia Li, a member of the first violins. She said yes.


***11