Childhood Lessons and Spanish Flair, from Maurice Ravel

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Let's face it. Often, when classical music lovers hear the words "20th-Century," they assume there's something daunting ahead, perhaps because other words quickly come to mind -- such as "12-tone," "atonal," and "aleatory." Yet sometimes, that knee-jerk reaction is decidedly misplaced, as plenty of 20th-century composers wrote music that's both adventurous, and appealing.

One example is Maurice Ravel, who died in 1937. His most familiar works include some of the most popular pieces ever composed -- in any century. For example, there's "Bolero," a blockbuster heard everywhere from movie scores, to concert halls, to the Winter Olympics, where its relentless energy has been a popular accompaniment to ice dancing routines. "Bolero," written in 1928, has also been recorded a few times. By some counts, there are nearly 200 recordings of the piece currently available.

There's another score by Ravel that may be even more popular. His "Pavane for a Dead Princess" can be found on more than 300 recordings, ranging from standard orchestral versions, to performances by guitar quartets and clarinet ensembles.

And, Ravel's greatest hits hardly stop there. There's his well-known "Mother Goose Suite," which began life as a full-scale ballet. There's his rollicking, dance-like "La Valse," which started out as a solo piano score. There's also chamber music, including his captivating String Quartet, and the brilliant yet haunting Piano Trio.

In other words, Ravel's widespread popularity is well-earned; whether you're a fan of orchestral music, ballet, solo piano, or chamber music, Ravel probably wrote something that's right up your alley.

But, what about opera? Well, despite his versatility, Ravel has never been regarded as an "opera composer," though it wasn't for lack of effort -- or at least ambition. He considered writing an opera called Olympia, based on the story of a mechanical doll made famous in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann. He thought of an opera about Scheherazade, and one about Joan of Arc.

None of those works ever really got off the ground, and in the end, Ravel came up with only two operas. That's the bad news -- at least for opera buffs who also love Ravel. The good news is that both scores are fairly short, and when played back to back, they make for a smashing double bill -- and that's the pairing featured here this week.

Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole (The Time in Spain) was composed for the Opéra Comique in Paris, in 1911. The libretto was adapted from a play by Franc-Nohain, and tells the rather risqué story of a clockmaker's wife who tries on a couple of different extra-curricular affairs before discovering an unlikely candidate who proves the most reliable choice.

L'Enfant et les Sortilèges (The Child and the Magic Spells) premiered in Monte Carlo in 1925. It features a libretto by Colette -- the popular French author of Gigi, a novella which later became a Lerner and Lowe musical. The opera, both whimsical and sentimental, tells the fantastic tale of a troublesome child who learns a life lesson when the things all around him, which he has always taken for granted, suddenly demand lives of their own.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents both operas from Victoria Hall in Geneva, in performances featuring the Suisse Romande Orchestra with conductor Charles Dutoit.


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