Maurice Ravel was a childless French bachelor whose greatest inspirations were, paradoxically, children and Spain. The innovative composer's affection for the former is evident in his magical "Mother Goose," written for two young pianists and later orchestrated into some of the most enchanting music of the 20th century. His love for the latter derived from his Spanish mother's Basque heritage—she used to sing him Spanish folk songs. Ravel's two unlikely amours converge this month when Portland Opera stages both of his fabulous one-act operas, "The Spanish Hour" and "The Bewitched Child."
For the latter's libretto, the great and notorious novelist Colette contrived a charming morality tale that would entertain her 3-year-old daughter. Ravel, who loved telling kids fantastic stories as much as he loved cats, includes a feline duet along with wallpaper that comes to life, a singing fire, talking trees and an animated easy chair—enough proto-psychedelic imagery to entertain Lewis Carroll, Ken Kesey and Terry Gilliam. "It was important that we not literally depict each character who plays a teacup or grandfather clock," says Portland Opera general director Christopher Mattaliano. "Once you do realistic, you've left the audience's imagination out."
Children wouldn't be an appropriate audience for the other opera on the bill, one of the dirtiest and funniest in the repertoire. Premiered in Paris almost exactly a century ago and based on a satirically salacious 1904 play by Franc-Nohain, "The Spanish Hour" is a sex farce in which a bored, frisky housewife slips in a little—actually, a lot of—action on the side when her clockmaker husband is away.
The unusual double bill is the Opera's only "stretch" opera in a year when recession forced it to cut back on offbeat productions in favor of sure-bet standard fare. "I honor traditions, but I'm also very concerned about Portland Opera not getting stuck, as a number of regional companies do, recycling the same 10 or 15 standards," says Mattaliano, who also directs both productions.
Less familiar repertoire and the company's young studio artists have in recent years proved to be far more fascinating than the warhorses that rule at the Opera's over-capacious regular home, Keller Auditorium, which Mattaliano terms "a barn that's not appropriate" for intimately scaled operas like Ravel's or Mozart's. "I think this series we do every spring at the Newmark Theatre is immensely popular because there's a significant part of the Portland community that loves more adventurous works," he says. "And the intimacy of the Newmark lets you get so close to the singers that it has more impact." That may explain why all four shows sold out early, and the company added a fifth, which at press time had only a few seats available. Like Ravel, Portland's venturesome music fans seem ready to embrace the unexpected.
SEE IT: Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway, 241-1802, portlandopera.org. 7:30 pm April 1, 5, 7 and 9; 2 pm April 3. $75.