The pairing of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges (“The Child and the Spells”) with Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (“The Dwarf”) is an interesting juxtaposition. The two works have some strong similarities: both were written shortly after 1920, with scenarios by authors who were known for their homosexual promiscuity (Colette, and Oscar Wilde respectively) and both are fairytales, with unpleasant children taking the lead roles. Both Ravel and Zemlinsky are masters of orchestral colour and technique, though in astonishingly different ways, so hearing them in such close proximity really draws each composers musical ingenuity and originality to the fore. However, one is also forced to make other comparisons, and ones which may spoil the balance of the double-bill.

Kevin Conners (Teapot), Tara Erraught (The Child), Okka von der Damerau (Teacup) © Wilfried Hösl
Kevin Conners (Teapot), Tara Erraught (The Child), Okka von der Damerau (Teacup)
© Wilfried Hösl

The performance opens with the Ravel and Colette’s tale of a naughty child whose furniture, toys, storybooks and animals anthropomorphise after a particularly unpleasant tantrum. The Bayerische Staatsoper’s production is playful and inventive, with the whole production taking place on a movie-set, starting in a trailer decked out like the inside of a late-1950s house and expanding outwards to embrace the whole stage. Not only do we get to see the cameras, microphones and crew, but we also get to see the images they are filming, projected onto a screen above the performers. Unfortunately, the fact that the projected images are not a live feed becomes abundantly clear when characters enter the room long before their image does so on the screen. However, the production and the set otherwise take us wheeling through an inventive textural colourscape; a true feast for the eyes and the imagination. The Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught gives a wonderful performance as the child, her warm and versatile voice bringing taking us through a kaleidoscopic array of child-like emotions, from the overwhelming screaming of the opening, to the outright distress of the closing scene. Okka von der Damerau aptly portrays a loving mother, while, as the Princess, Anna Virovlansky sings the glistening high notes with a haunting beauty.

Sadly, none of this makes up for the piece itself. While the music is full of orchestral colour and endless descriptive variety, it doesn’t have any particularly memorable musical moments. There are no big arias, and no sweeping orchestral tunes, even the delightful Cats’ duet fails to leave a lasting musical impression; all of the wonderful orchestral writing feels somewhat abstracted and intangible. This wouldn’t matter if the drama gave it some impetus, but the series of short tableaux that we are whisked through fails to do so, and the opera’s only major character, the child, feels somewhat flat and underdeveloped. Nothing lasts for long enough to really capture our attention, either musically or dramatically, and we are left unable to orientate ourselves within the 45-minute work.

Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg contrasts significantly, both in dramatic and musical terms. Based on Oscar Wilde’s fairytale “The Birthday of the Infanta” from his 1891 collection A House of Pomegranates, the opera tells the story of a beautiful Princess who, for her 18th Birthday, is given a hideous dwarf by a Sultan from a far off kingdom. However, the Dwarf is unaware that he is ugly, and the Princess taunts him by pretending to love him, dancing with him and kissing him. Eventually the Dwarf sees himself in a mirror and realises that the Princess’ love is nothing but a cruel game, and dies of a broken heart. Zemlinsky’s horrible child is thus wholly different from Ravel’s; while the child of the first opera is just a kid throwing a tantrum, the princess of the second is a calculated, vindictive sadist, the spoilt rich kid of 16th century Spain.

The staging of this opera is quite different from that of the first, with a simple and completely stationary set consisting primarily of two mid-20th century convertibles. The costumes are lively and opulent, with brightly coloured hoop-skirts, and a slightly incongruous 18th century nobleman’s outfit for the servant Don Estoban. Elena Tsallagova brings the role of the princess to life with incredible singing and a complete mastery of character. In her hands the difficult vocal lines come across elegantly and effortlessly, enhancing the arrogant and callous character of the Princess which she has down to a T. American tenor John Daszak is perhaps a little too tall to make a believable dwarf (being taller than almost every other cast member!) but his fall from happiness to despair is vividly moving, and his rich, dramatic voice is almost unbearably emotional.

Oscar Wilde’s short story translates far better onto the stage than Colette’s libretto. There are more three-dimensional characters than in the Ravel, with the slimy Don Estoban, the bratty Princess and the empathetically tragic Dwarf. This gives the opera greater momentum, and the interaction of the three principal roles provides a sense of tension and drive. Zemlinsky’s music perhaps doesn’t brim with exotic colours to the same extent as Ravel’s, but his orchestral writing is evocative and glints with the excess of finery. Georg Klaren’s libretto is also textually more operatic than Colette’s, providing opportunity for arias, a false love duet, and even a mad-scene from the Dwarf. Combined with Zemlinsky’s almost leitmotivic use of the orchestra, this gives the opera greater musical thrust too. While the Ravel failed to hold my attention for the full length of the first half, the Zemlinsky whisked me along and left me hungry for more.

As a double-bill the pairing is intriguing and thought provoking. If you disagree with me about the merits of Ravel’s second opera then this production will undoubtedly excite you, but for me no amount of ingenuity can rescue the work from its integral flaws. Even the impeccable playing of the orchestra, under the masterly direction of Kent Nagano fails to provide enough orchestral brilliance to sustain it. However, the Zemlinsky is wonderful, both in terms of the production and the work itself, and warrants the ticket price on its own.