Classical music is often portayed as being very serious, which is part of what makes it seem inaccessible at times. But this is a mistake: there are plenty of pieces that are, in a word, fun. Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Rotterdam’s beloved principal conductor, delivered a Ravel performance which was just this, emphasizing a childlike pleasure while still ensuring that the beauty of Ravel’s opera L’enfant et les sortilèges was not underappreciated.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Marco Borggreve
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Marco Borggreve

Before the semi-staged performance of the opera, the Rotterdam Philharmonic gave a performance of Ravel’s Ma Mère L’Oye, “Mother Goose”. A short orchestral suite based on the fairy tale, it is a lovely piece of music that sweeps you away. The orchestra and Nézet-Séguin have played this piece together many times, but there was nothing perfunctory about the performance. It was actually rather sweet and very rich in sound, being reminiscent of fairy-tales in ways that only Ravel and Debussy (and arguably Stravinsky, whose fairy-tales were more violent) have been able to translate into music.

Aided by the puppet mastery of O.T. Theater (one of the highlights was a frog mimicking Nézet-Séguin’s conducting during a musical interlude), a whole slew of breathtaking soloists delivered a concert that I will not soon forget. The Opera Dagen festival in Rotterdam presents high-quality semi-staged operas every year, but I have no doubt that this performance of L’enfant et les sortilèges will be talked about for years to come.

This is of course for a large part due to the piece itself. With a libretto by famed author Colette, Ravel was able to conjure up images of childhood innocence and mischievousness. The libretto includes roles for a sofa, a lounge chair, a grandfather clock, a frog, a bat, a tree, and many other characters that, in the child’s imagination, come to life. Even though the opera was written for two children in particular, it is not childish. The opera and music are definitely fun, but they have an emotional depth that makes the listener nostalgic, and it’s also a rousing and spirited piece. The vocal lines were beautiful, and the chorus amazing. The Vlaams Radiokoor and their two soloists Silvia de la Muela and Lore Binon were soothing and commanding, their performance of the shepherd-song being phenomenal.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic and Nézet-Séguin have a rich history of playing Ravel’s music, and Nézet-Séguin announced that this opera is the last piece of music in that journey through Ravel’s works. This experience of playing Ravel ensures that all the subtleties and beautiful little melodies, all the heavy drama and strange sounds, are balanced perfectly, with Ravel’s characteristic orchestral colour never being lost.

But the real star of the evening was the incredible cast of singers that graced the stage of De Doelen. Magdalena Kožená, undoubtedly a huge draw, was captivating as the child. Although once or twice barely audible over the orchestra, her voice, expression and interpretation were wonderful. Nathalie Stutzmann was a regal mother and hilarious china cup, while tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt absolutely stole the show as the sofa, frog and old mathematician that haunts the child with numbers and equations. Sopranos Karina Gauvin and Aline Kutan were faultless despite their challenging parts, and even though Renate Arends lacked some of their vocal power, her cat duet with Martijn Cornet was one of the highlights of the evening, despite “miaow” being their only word. Paul Gay was terrifying as the tree stabbed by the young child, a feeling enhanced by Ravel’s music that soon became lighter again, as the child saves a squirrel.

The Rotterdam Philharmonic has been profiling itself as an orchestra of high international standard, and evenings like this confirm once again that they can compete with some of the top orchestras out there. But the real strength of this evening of music was that when you leave your heart is fuller, not only because you know this was a musical performance of outstanding quality, but because it’s music that speaks to all of us. Ravel knows how to affect you both a grown-up lover of the beautiful things in life (in this case classical music) and as someone who simply likes to have fun.