On Friday evening, 250 members of Phnom Penh’s Francophone community braved Monireth Boulevard’s motorcycle gridlock for a rare evening of sophistication: a touring recital by the Children’s Choir of the Paris National Opera, organised in conjunction with The Institut Français du Cambodge.
Fresh from travels to Laos and Vietnam, the Children’s Choir performed Maurice Ravel’s L'enfant et les sortilèges (The Child and the Spells) to an audience that ran the full gamut of the city’s French speakers, from sartorially-minded embassy staff and their families to restive groups of elementary school language students.
First performed in 1925, Ravel’s opera is the tale of a petulant child who flies into a rage after a confrontation with her mother, destroying all objects in her room.
Slowly the objects come alive to reprimand her.
After a brief interval, the child re-emerges in the garden outside the house where she is chided and attacked by the plants and animals she had tortured in similar tantrums.
As the animals prepare to attack her, the child helps a squirrel injured in the fracas, and in a change of heart after witnessing her kind behaviour, they help to return her home while singing her praises.
The Paris National Opera’s production spared no indulgence, with an ensemble cast featuring 50 of France’s finest young vocal talents performing in tandem with the choir’s resident string ensemble.
Elegant butterfly costumes used in the second half were the opera’s aesthetic highlight, and their wearers were held aloft and spirited across the stage with all the grace and finesse of the Children’s Choir’s adult counterparts.
Gaël Darchen, director of the Children’s Choir since 1999, said that his young charges were enthusiastic about the opportunity to share their love of opera with people of the region.
“It is so different to what the audience is used to here. The idea of musical harmony is different to what people are used to here. Our audiences in Europe are used to operatic performances; they don’t have to learn to listen like our audiences here do,” he said.
Darchand added that such an extravagant production was only possible because of the firm commitment given to developing the arts by the French Government – in particular, the advocacy and financial support from Patrick Devedjian, the President of the General Council for the Hauts-De-Seine Département, which administers the neighbourhoods of Paris where the National Opera resides.
François Allain, the cultural chargé de mission at Institut Français, says that his organisation revelled in the opportunity to imbue Cambodia’s French students with a love of the language and provide a taste of high culture to the city’s Francophone expatriates.
“The National Opera has a huge budget, whereas we have to work with the same amount of resources every year,” Allain said. “Naturally, it’s great to have something of such a high artistic level, something which one would see in Paris and France being performed in Phnom Penh.”
The production of Ravel’s opera marks the third occasion that the Children’s Choir has travelled through the region, following a tour of contemporary composer Isabelle Aboulker’s Marco Polo through China in 2005 and the baroque opera Dido and Aeneas around India two years later.
It is also one of the many events organised to commemorate the Institut Français du Cambodge’s 20th year in the Kingdom.
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]