Visual Magic Hits, Misses In Ravel, Stravinsky Bill

Nadja Mchantaf is the Boy in Maurice Ravel’s ‘L’Enfant et les Sortilèges,’ on an animated set by the British company 1927 for the Komische Oper Berlin. Photos: Iko Freese |

By Rebecca Schmid

BERLIN – A talking tea-pot, a wounded tree, dancing math equations–there is hardly a stage work that would lend itself better to animated film than Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Enter the British company 1927 (animator Paul Barritt, writer Suzanne Andrade, and performer Esme Appleton), which specializes in juxtaposing sets of tailor-made cartoons with live action. In its first foray into opera with Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at the Komische Oper Berlin in 2012, the wilder effects included Pamina’s ascent in butterfly wings after her suicide attempt and flying pink elephants that led Papageno to Papagena. The production was a blockbuster at home and later traveled as far as London and Los Angeles.

As seen on Jan. 28 at the Komische Oper in a double bill with Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka, 1927’s palette of imagery is even better suited to Ravel’s fantasy world in which the damaged objects of a boy’s bedroom come to life and haunt him until he understands the meaning of virtue.  The Boy (Nadja Mchantaf) first appears in pure animation until he is punished by his mother and enters the world of spirits. Perched on a platform in front of the projection, he appears to soar through the cosmos. Nevertheless, 1927’s imagination did not reach its full potential until subsequent tableaux. The Boy’s first visitors, the Arm Chair and the Sofa, were not seen, only heard.

Nadja Mchantaf as the Boy in ‘L’enfant et les sortilèges.’

While their lack of physical presence created a certain suspense, the effect was lost on the teatime scene, in which the Boy was virtually drenched from a giant spout while the Teapot and Cup (Ivan Turšić and Ezgi Kutlu) sang from offstage. The appearance of a lemon wedge dipping in and out the cup to a fox-trot rhythm was too mundane to hold its own against Ravel’s witty, colorful orchestration.

The aesthetic became more engaging with the appearance of the Fire, as represented merely by the head of soprano Talya Lieberman within the drawing of a burning sun, castigating the Boy with her haughty coloratura. The Little Old Man (Tursic) and chorus of Numbers who preach math lessons made brilliant use of kinetic diagrams and Expressionist make-up. The cat duet was also a highlight as the purring animals suddenly grew far larger than the boy.

All of 1927’s theatrical tricks were  let loose in the magical garden in which the second part of L’Enfant takes place. The Tree (Carsten Sabrowski, singing offstage) which the child wounded the day before, comes to life before our eyes. By the time the flying dragonfly and army of animals (here shown as squirrels) enter the garden, the viewer is fully immersed in an alternative universe.

Tiago Alexandre Fonseca as Stravinsky’s Petrushka cavorts on animated set.

But the stage was at times so busy with flitting imagery that it overpowered Ravel’s intricate score, in which a single growling woodwind can express more than an entire video screen. Given the diligent performance of the orchestra of the Komische Oper under guest conductor Markus Poschner, it was a particular shame not to revel more in the music’s expressive subtleties.

Meanwhile, the cast invested their roles with an admirable combination of comic timing, attention to French diction, and vocal finesse. Mchantaf and Liebermann, both young members of the house ensemble, stood out in particular for their technical assurance and imaginative characterizations.

Similarly, it was the performances of physical human beings that proved a stronger attraction than animation effects in large stretches of Petrushka. Particularly in the opening “Shrovetide Fair,” 1927’s images ranged from mundane to dizzying. Flying birds accompanied the title character’s cheeky flute motive, shifting to a chaotic fairground whose aesthetic is based loosely on Russian constructivism as the music introduces pounding rhythms. The brass-heavy playing of the orchestra only underscored the rather haphazard sequence.

Tiago Alexandre Fonseca (Petrushka) and Pauliina Räsänen (Ptitschka , the Ballerina).

The visuals first become exciting when the clown Petrushka, the Ballerina, and the Moor (all puppets, according to the story) jump out from behind a scrim of black-and-white images as acrobats in the flesh-and-blood. Tiago Alexandre Fonseca, as the title character, impressed both with facial expressions evoking Expressionist silent films and daring moves such as looping his ankle in a rope and hanging upside down.

In the pas de deux “The Blackamoor,” the Ballerina (Pauliina Räsänen) balanced on the head of the moor (Slava Volkov) with one leg raised in the air. Meanwhile, the puppet master is first seen merely as a pair of giant hands, appearing in the final tableau as a Czar-like cartoon who tortures Petrushka until his spirit leaves his body. Onscreen images of Volkov floating into the atmosphere once again drew upon an ingenious combination of film and corporeality. Even if Stravinsky’s score at times had to vie with the commotion of 1927’s visuals, the production deserves credit for daring to stage a ballet which is normally confined to stuffy concert halls.

Rebecca Schmid is a music writer based in Berlin. She contributes regularly to the Financial Times, New York Times, Gramophone, Musical America Worldwide, and other publications.