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Philadelphia Orchestra performs rare Ravel operatic gem

The orchestra has performed the magical "L'enfant et les sortilèges" only once before. Popular mezzo Isabel Leonard sings the child part.

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard sang the role of the Child in the orchestra's concert version of L'enfant et les sortilèges by Ravel.
Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard sang the role of the Child in the orchestra's concert version of L'enfant et les sortilèges by Ravel.Read moreBECCA FAY

It’s the story of a boy who mistreats everything and everyone around him — until he finds his way back into the bosom of mutual need and love.

You don’t have to squint much to see the relevant parable in the charming one-act opera currently being performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. In a modestly staged production, Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, with its libretto by Colette, seems to speak directly to us right now about the peril of abusing the natural world.

The program is the penultimate one by Stéphane Denève in his six-year role as the orchestra’s principal guest conductor. The Frenchman has made a fine art of marrying orchestral repertoire and relevance in his time here.

Chief among his tools has been film music, and from this idea Thursday night in Verizon Hall he stitched together a kind of prelude to the Ravel. The theme was magic, and the works before intermission followed it literally, even if the music itself seemed a jumble: Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and excerpts from John Williams’ Harry Potter scores.

Even insulated by intermission, this stretch was a heavy-handed curtain-raiser to Ravel, whose sound universe is both heavily perfumed and filled with jagged little surprises.

What Denève succeeded in doing with L’enfant was hitting upon a piece as luscious for orchestra as singers. The choirs — Philadelphia Boys Choir, Westminster Symphonic Choir — occupied an unusual palette of colors. Percussionist Christopher Deviney was intimating a bird one moment, the wind the next (by way of a wind machine). Trombonist Nitzan Haroz reinforced the stage action with a solo halfway between jazz and Kurt Weill.

All of this was in the service of a story playing out in front of the orchestra by a group of eight solo singers mostly taking on multiple roles (no scenery, minimal costuming). Mother (Sara Couden, with a magnificent deep-well of a mezzo sound) punishes a boy for not doing his homework, and he (the nuanced and powerful mezzo Isabel Leonard), in a tantrum, goes about mangling the objects around him.

They all come back — and to life: a teapot, a clock, an entire arithmetic lesson in a trippy mob of numbers. Even without costumes and sets, the 40-minute piece is a gem.

And this lightly produced version smartly stage-directed by Stephanie Havey might even be better in some ways. All of the singers are excellent. Tenor Mathias Vidal (teapot, little old man, tree frog) and baritone John Moore (clock, black cat) each had a special measure of charisma and charm.

And when the orchestra is as good as this one, sometimes it’s best to just close your eyes and go: to the sensuous, storybook realm of the princess (matched by equally sensuous solo flute work by Patrick Williams); to a garden of trees whose wounds bleed with the sound of oozing orchestral sap; and back into the forgiving arms of nature.

Additional performance: Saturday at 8 p.m. in Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets are $10-$159. 215-893-1999,