Every theater lover has their list of favorite spectacular moments, from crashing chandeliers to gravity-defying witches. My mental list of breathtaking highlights got considerably shuffled Saturday night at a performance of Ravel’s 1925 one-act opera, L'enfant et les Sortileges (The Child and the Spells), at UWM’s Zelazo Center.
The child of the title, it seems, is in the midst of a long, fantasy tantrum that could be the subject of a Shel Silverstein book. After being confronted by teacups, clocks and frogs, which reprimand him for the various tortures she’s inflicted upon them, he encounters a dragonfly whose mate has been captured and kept in a cage. It materializes onstage in a miracle of simple stagecraft. Members of the large cast hold flattened U-Haul boxes and shape the creature’s pair of 20-foot wings. A long strip of bubble wrap splits the wings to form the body, with a couple of fishing poles standing in for antennae.
It’s memorable in its simple extravagance, but it’s just one of many moments of gleeful invention in Jill Anna Ponasik’s and Edward Winslow’s creative staging.
The performance of Les L'enfant… was a combined effort of Ponasik’s Milwaukee Opera Theatre and UWM’s Peck School of the Arts. Opera and voice students from UWM were joined by regulars from MOT, including Allison Hull, who gave a spirited performance as the child. Jun Kim conducted the UWM Symphony Orchestra, which played Ravel’s challenging, jazzy score with snappy energy and a terrific ear for detail. Christina Briggs-Winslow, Joelle Worm, Annette Grefig provided choreography for UWM dance students.
In short, it was a huge undertaking for a landmark work that is seldom seen onstage. Famous for both Ravel’s richly textured music and for the libretto, by Collette, it’s a landmark of modern music theater (the choreography for the premiere production was by George Balanchine). And here, it was given a charming and beautiful postmodern spin by a veritable army of students and artists. Unfortunately, like the inspired stage magic, it was fleeting, playing only two performances this weekend.