You see many strange things on the operatic stage, but dancing armchairs, a singing clock, a Wedgewood teapot, pictures from the wallpaper and a maelstrom of arithmetic, not to mention assorted insects, birds and animals have to be ranked among the odder cast lists out there. This is the magical world of Ravel’s one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges (“The child and the spells”), and brought to life in an bewitching production at Sage Gateshead by the young singers of Samling Academy.

Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson (Fire) and Charlotte La Thrope (The Child) © Mark Pinder
Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson (Fire) and Charlotte La Thrope (The Child)
© Mark Pinder

The relatively new Samling Academy programme provides intensive tutoring and performance opportunities for singers aged 14-21 living or studying in the North East, and the organisation is able to call on the support of past and present members of its Samling Artist programme for emerging professionals – the production was directed by a former Samling Artist, Miranda Wright, and two current Samling Artists were among the performers: Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson in the virtuosic dual roles of the Fire and the Nightingale; and pianists Jean-Paul Pruna and Ian Tindale in the quartet of instrumentalists.

The opera’s story is a gentle childish fable; a mixture of Alice in Wonderland and Where the Wild Things Are. A naughty boy is sent to his room where he throws a tantrum, but all the things he has ever hurt or damaged come to life, and eventually he learns the consequences of his actions. It could be a tediously sickly Victorian morality tale, but not when the lightness and wit of both Collette’s libretto and Ravel’s music are there to spirit us into the surreal and enchanting world of a child’s imagination.

There are, of course, plenty of operatic trouser roles, but Ravel goes a step further by requiring an adult soprano to sing demanding music whilst acting the part of a small boy. Charlotte La Thrope brought touching vulnerability to the role, her convincingly childlike mannerisms compensating for Ravel’s uncompromisingly adult score. Her Enfant never seemed wilfully cruel, just lonely and bored, neglected by his socialite mother (Harriet Beckham), and channelling all his affection onto the princess in his story book. It was particularly enjoyable to watch Charlotte La Thrope’s alternating alarm and delight as the objects around the Child come to life.

Harriet Beckham (tea cup), Charlotte La Thrope (The Child) and Alexander Banfield (teapot) © Mark Pinder
Harriet Beckham (tea cup), Charlotte La Thrope (The Child) and Alexander Banfield (teapot)
© Mark Pinder

The spell begins in the nursery, first the armchairs dance, then Richard Pinkstone’s delightfully crazed clock, whilst Harriet Beckham and Alexander Banfield were a charmingly whimsical china cup and Wedgewood teapot (singing in Chinese and Franglais). The child is delighted but then the terrifying fire starts to warn him about the consequences of his naughtiness: Ruth Jenkins-Róbertsson, splendidly arrayed in a massive orange winged cape, and bathed in red light, became a visual and musical inferno as she blazed through Ravel’s vocal pyrotechnics.

We’re used to seeing Ravel adding his dazzling orchestral colour to piano music written by other composers; a skilful transcription of L’Enfant by Didier Puntos reverses that, distilling Ravel’s rich orchestration down to a quartet of piano duet, flute and cello. This arrangement was ideally suited to the young Samling Academy voices, and to the intimate space in Sage Gateshead’s Hall Two. The four players were on the stage, dressed in white tie, suggesting that they were part of Maman’s social whirl drifting into the child’s mind.

Ana Fernandez Guerra and Jacob Robson © Mark Pinder
Ana Fernandez Guerra and Jacob Robson
© Mark Pinder

The opera’s most touching moment is when the fairy tale princess steps out of the book, and the child realises he has hurt something he loves. They sing a touching love duet, but because he has ripped up the pages of his book, the princess is trapped forever without her story’s happy ending. Rowan Pierce’s princess, dressed like the Child’s Maman in a gorgeous sequined 1920s dress, was gently mournful, wrapped in a wall of sound created by the accompanying flute and the effect of her imprisonment was enhanced by flautist Luke Russell leaving the band and circling round Pierce as she sang.

The younger members of Samling Academy made up a strong chorus in the ensemble scenes, particularly the opera’s funniest moment when the Child is tormented by the numbers from his arithmetic book. The shepherdesses from the torn wallpaper, led by Rebecca Madden and Camilla Harris and were delightful. Camilla Harris returned later in an altogether less innocent guise as one of the two cats, in a sexed-up take on Rossini’s cat duet alongside Jordan Carlton.

The opera reaches its conclusion outside in the garden in another ensemble scene where the plants and animals the child has hurt sing of their injuries. Dragonfly Charlotte Heslop was heart-breaking as she sang of her lost partner who turns out to have been pinned in the Child’s collection. Alexander Banfield managed to sing whilst bounding about the stage in an energetic frog dance and Ana Fernandez Guerra shone in the squirrel’s rhapsodic aria about freedom.

The opera ends with the chastened Child calling for his mother, and the animals take up the magical word, so dear to Ravel’s own heart, “Maman”, bringing this utterly enchanting production to a gentle close.