The Philharmonia's “City of Light” season goes from strength to strength. After an astounding performance of Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, this concert featured yet another superlative semi-staged opera performance. The complex scenario of Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges means that it rarely appears in the opera house, but this performance proposed an alternative which was just as gratifying. The impact of the opera was refined, not diminished, and brought the chilling core of the work to the forefront.

Sabine Devieilhe © Jen Supaph
Sabine Devieilhe
© Jen Supaph

Dutilleux's Correspondances may have been both dedicated to and premiered by the soprano Dawn Upshaw, but Barbara Hannigan is surely the performer who has made the work her own (Dutilleux even wrote an alternative ending for her). Hannigan's charisma and theatrical manner of performance is perfectly suited to the work, allowing the different characters of each letter to emerge. Even if she was occasionally lost within the orchestral texture, her silky lyricism and soaring vocalises were exquisite. Esa-Pekka Salonen led the Philharmonia in a polished performance, his fluid transitions allowing the textures to blend into one another almost imperceptibly.

Incorporating popular song, jazz and 18th century classicism, Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major is a pot-pourri of styles and musical references. Unfortunately, the disparate parts failed to merge into a coherent whole in this performance. The outer two movements felt markedly unsettled, with some intonational errors not helping matters. Mitsuko Uchida's performance was playful and vivacious, but not always in accordance with the orchestra. The brisk tempo for the finale caused noticeable problems, with some of Uchida's scurrying passagework distinctly approximate. The reflective middle movement exuded warmth with a beautiful melancholy solo from cor anglais player Jill Crowther and muted passagework from Uchida, but the effect was somewhat marred by some off-colour woodwind.

Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges might masquerade as a light-hearted work, but beneath the fairytale scenario lies the void that is its centre. Written in the wake of World War I, the work is suffused with pessimism and death; the apparent happy ending is far from satisfactory. The superb cast was led by Chloé Briot (formerly Yniold in November's Pelléas et Mélisande), whose quick vibrato lent an attractive sheen to her bright sound. The show was stolen, though, by Sabine Devieilhe: as the characters of Fire and Nightingale in turn, her frothy coloratura passagework was flawless.

The work was not without humour: a flirtatious skit between Andrea Hill and Nicolas Courjal earned guffaws from the audience, while Jean-Sébastien Bou's Grandfather Clock was pure slapstick. Ravel's score would be a gift for any orchestra, and the Philharmonia approached it with good humour and sensitivity. Orientalist passages were delicately painted and raucous trombone glisses enlivened the comedic episodes. As the fantasy began to turn malevolent, the stark textures created a sense of foreboding; an excellent solo from double bassist Tim Gibbs was especially compelling. The chorus lent solid support, their restorative imitative passage at the end bringing the work towards its abrupt end.

Unfortunately, the Philharmonia's City of Light season does not contain any more operas. Yet, with the success of Pelléas et Mélisande and L'enfant et les sortilèges, this is certainly an area I hope they will continue to explore. These stylish semi-stagings are something the orchestra should capitalise on, and I am eagerly awaiting the next.