On the evening of February 20, 1981, some very odd things happened on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House. Stagehands went about their business dressed as Punchinellos out of Domenico Tiepolo, complete with tall, tapering hats and hook-nosed masks. A man fathered babies by the dozen with no help from the opposite sex, and one of them—still in his cradle—wrote a novel that sold six hundred thousand copies. Two king-sized cats parodied the love duet from Act II of Tristan und Isolde. A personified fire jumped out of the fireplace and ran round the room until brought to order by personified ashes. And in the center of the stage, though for a very few seconds, the young Colette—unmistakable for her profile and costume—was seen to be typing at top speed.
These goings-on were not part of an evening of jokes, such as is devised every Christmas at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. They were fundamental to Parade, a triple bill that was by universal consent one of the best and most inventive productions ever to have been staged in that great but often erratic institution, the Metropolitan Opera.
The prognosis for the evening had not been favorable. Triple bills in general empty an opera house almost faster than the discovery of an unexploded bomb, and in this case no one had known quite what the Met was up to. The program consisted of Parade itself—a ballet with which no one hitherto had presumed to tamper—and two short operas: Les Mamelles de Tirésias by Francis Poulenc and L’Enfant et les Sortilèges by Maurice Ravel. Was this a coherent program, people asked, or a cocktail that someone had forgotten to shake?
As for Parade itself—the ballet, not the bill—it seemed to make no sense to keep Erik Satie’s music and drop Picasso’s scenery and costumes, Massine’s choreography, and Cocteau’s scenario. The interaction of those four people had produced a masterpiece. Picasso’s designs are as important to the history of art as they are to the history of the theater. Massine’s fine-boned inventions—for the Chinese Conjurer, above all—have kept their pristine astonishment. In suggesting that everyday movements can become material for the dance, Parade was many years ahead of its time, just as it was ahead of its time in putting together a collage of ideas from classical ballet, from the circus, and from the silent cinema. Satie’s music did not have an independent pre-existence, like the music for L’Après Midi d’un Faune. It was locked into the ballet the way fossils are locked into schist. To try in 1981 to top the achievement of Picasso, Massine, Satie, and Cocteau in 1917 was surely the work of madmen.
Very few people in this country had seen a first-rate performance of Les Mamelles de Tirésias. Poulenc was regarded by most members of the Met public as an amiable lightweight who redeemed himself late in life by writing Dialogues des Carmélites. No matter what may be said about Les Mamelles, it is not at all like the Carmélites. It is about a wife who changes her sex on stage, a Great Detective who uses a pantomime horse to get around, and a Parisian newspaperman who begins every interview with the words “Hands up!” As for L’Enfant et les Sortilèges—well, Ravel is Ravel, but this particular piece, which deals with the temper-tantrums of a child in a particularly well-stocked nursery, was thought to be altogether too finicky for the huge spaces of the Met.
Altogether, this was an evening that looked like a chore to most of the people who were asked to treat it as a benefit, with tickets costing as much as $125. It was to be an ensemble performance, with no stars in the cast. The conductor, Manuel Rosenthal, was well into his seventies and had never been engaged by the Met before. The designer, David Hockney, had never worked in an American theater before. There was no “word of mouth,” since no one was allowed into rehearsals. Talk shows were vetoed absolutely, though David Hockney is a champion communicator. It began to be said around the town that the whole operation was misconceived. With three insubstantial pieces the Met seemed to have on its hands a catastrophe comparable to, but more conspicuous than, the triple bill of new American operas that had lately been and gone at the City Opera.
On the other side—and it was the other side that counted, overwhelmingly—there was what might be called l’esprit 1917. It was on May 18, 1917, that Parade in its original form was first given at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. It was on the afternoon of June 24, 1917, that Les Mamelles de Tirésias, a play by Guillaume Apollinaire, was given a single performance at a little theater in Montmartre. It was also in 1917 that Colette plumped for Maurice Ravel as the best possible composer for L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, which she had written in less than a week at the request of the director of the Opéra in Paris. And though Francis Poulenc was much younger than the cast of characters I have thus far assembled, he was present as a boy of eighteen at the performance of Les Mamelles de Tirésias on that summer afternoon in 1917, and he did not forget it when he wrote the score during World War II. He loved the play, and he was impressed—as who would not be?—to be part of a quite small audience that also included (by his own account) Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, André Derain, Fernand Léger, Jean Cocteau, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, André Breton, Serge Diaghilev, and Leonide Massine.
How to characterize l’esprit 1917 as it manifested itself that summer? what Apollinaire had in common with the creators of Parade was the belief that in desperate times anything can be dared. In the summer of 1917 Europe was coming to the third anniversary of a war that was tearing the continent apart. The writ of the Establishment still ran in the trenches—all too much so—but in the theater, on the printed page, and in the studio it had lost all credit, “Ubuesque” had become an adjective of everyday application, whereas in 1896 it had had meaning only for Alfred Jarry and his two or three hundred readers. Parade had suggested that if the talents involved were strong enough, anything could be done, and anything could be heard, in the theater.
Les Mamelles de Tirésias, for all its apparent frivolity, had a message. The play itself was said by Apollinaire to date primarily from 1904, but during the run-up to rehearsals to 1917 he added the long prologue which is, in effect, a restatement of l’esprit 1917 in emphatic and constructive form. The role of the theater, he said, was not to give a photographic “slice of life.” Still less was it to go along with the spirit of pessimism that had ruled the stage for too long. The role of the theater was to dip deep into our experience and reassemble it—as happens in life—with no apparent or rational linkings or cross-references. The theater could make music from random noises, make painting welcome on the stage, make inanimate objects talk, and reverse the procedures of nature. The theater should be a place in which everything is made clear to us and nothing is taboo. That was l’esprit 1917, as it was conceived explicitly by Apollinaire, the foremost lyric poet of the day, and implicitly by Picasso, Satie, Massine, and Cocteau in Parade.
But we are not in 1917. The world has seen more than sixty summers since the word “surrealism” was coined in Apollinaire’s notes on the Mamelles, since the ship’s siren and the typewriter boomed and clacked in Erik Satie’s orchestra, and since the incomparable constructions of Picasso first stalked the stage of the Châtelet. It is more than fifty years since Ravel and Colette made inanimate objects talk and sing, as Apollinaire had hoped, in L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. Meanwhile, l’esprit 1917 has been often betrayed. We have sat through dreadful evenings in the absurdist theater, read books that sealed our eyelids shut, given a misplaced indulgence to musique concrète, and hoped against all the evidence that there was something worth saving in many another manifestation that claimed to travel under a passport signed by Apollinaire and stamped by Satie.
So what was exhilarating about Parade at the Met was that l’esprit 1917 turned out to be as lively as ever. It worked well in Apollinaire’s own terms—acrobatics of allusion, a completely free trade in sound and sense, equality between music, words, and painting on the stage. Apollinairean, likewise, was the spirit of healing affection and intelligent understanding that ran throughout the proceedings.
One last attribute of l’esprit 1917: its speed and lightness of movement. These qualities were not much talked about at the time, because they were either incomprehensible or taken for granted, but they were very strongly apparent at the Met. For speed of wit, speed of adjustment, and an endless fertility and purity of invention, the three pieces make most of what we see on the stage today seem short on energy, short on ideas, short on imagination, and nonexistent in terms of fun. No sooner had one marvel been presented to us than another took its place. Though not without an element of French thrift (Ravel salvaged elements from an uncompleted opera called La Cloche Engloutie and echoed them in the opening scene of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges), the three works on the program have it in common that they are the work of people who carry on as if they would live to be two hundred years old and never run out of ideas. Nothing goes on too long, and everything ends sooner than we would wish.
Except, conceivably, in the remake of Parade, which for one reason or another was the weakest part of the evening. It was fundamental to the ideas of John Dexter, who directed the whole program, that the child’s dream in the Ravel should answer to a grown-up’s dream in the Satie. The Child himself appeared, therefore, in this new Parade, where a Harlequin from Picasso’s rose period was on hand to see that he came to no harm. At the end of L’Enfant, that same Harlequin led him back to his mother at curtain-fall. Between the Poulenc and the Ravel, the Child was seen stretched out on the nursery building-blocks that spelled out the name of MAURICE RAVEL. He was, therefore, both participant and mascot, hero and house pet, from one end of the evening to the other. With this and many other conceits, Dexter and Hockney between them suggested that this was a program that made perfect sense.
But they still had to do something with Parade. Parade without Picasso would be ridiculous. From the moment that Satie’s dogged, lop-sided fanfare rang through the house, Picasso was present to anyone who ever saw the original version as it was overseen by Massine for the Joffrey Ballet not so long ago. But Parade with Picasso would have made nonsense of this evening at the Met. The more-than-human presence of his Managers—to take one instance only—would have had no common denominator with the specific qualities of Hockney’s sets and costumes for Poulenc and Ravel.
The compromise which Hockney and Dexter adopted was to make of this new Parade an intelligent man’s dream of rose period Picasso, with an occasional glance forward both at the Picasso of 1917 and at the predicament of the French nation at the time when Parade was first performed. As such, the stage picture was continuously touching and amusing, and just once or twice it was moving, as when the gas-masked enlisted man made his way through the barbed wire toward the mimes and tumblers who were wondering where next to scratch a living.
The Hockney-people had a good time during all this, but undeniably the dance-people felt cheated. The Chinese Conjuror was too close to Picasso in his costume for us not to wish that he had something substantial to do. An elegiac Parade, and a Parade in which nobody dances much—these are notions that fit very well with rose period Picasso but not at all with Satie’s robust, laconic, energized, and sardonic score. Given that the choreographer, Gray Veredon, had only two weeks in which to deputize for a celebrated defector, there is still a difference between something that is dreamlike in a thought-out and poetical way and something that is just plain inconclusive. People were puzzled by this Parade, just as they were puzzled by the original. But the original made them think hard about art, music, dance, and the stage, whereas the 1981 Parade made them marvel at the potential of the Met orchestra, when Manuel Rosenthal had taught it so many new tricks, and at the gifts of David Hockney as a designer who never let us notice that nothing memorable was happening on the stage.
From the original Parade to the Mamelles of Francis Poulenc is a thirty-years’ jump. But Poulenc at the end of World War II had still within him a great deal of l’esprit 1917. At the height of the existentialist vogue, he didn’t at all mind saying that one of the best tunes in the Mamelles came to him when he was having his hair cut. When other composers fell back on the surviving divas of the era before 1939, Poulenc took as his leading lady Denise Duval, who came from the Folies-Bergère and by her very presence brought quite another notion of professionalism to the Opéra-Comique. At a time when the notion of wit in music was much out of favor, Poulenc introduced routines from French vaudeville, chorus lines from operetta, and “big tunes” of a kind that would have emptied the hall (had it not been empty already) at the Donaueschingen Festival.
It was with the Mamelles that the evening at the Met could have run into trouble. No amount of coaching can equip singers who don’t really know French to sound idiomatic. Apollinaire was a great poet who counted on his every word being heard—all the more so, perhaps, when the text is largely made of one-liners that establish an immediate rapport between singers and audience. Barely has the curtain gone up on the town square in Zanzibar (one of David Hockney’s best inventions) than Thérèse says something to her husband that an American audience really ought to hear. “It is not because you courted me in Connecticut,” she says, “that I have to cook for you in Zanzibar.” Not a word of this got through at the Met, any more than the audience got the point when, early in Act 2, Apollinaire speaks of how Picasso has begun to make paintings that move. “Vive le pinceau de l’ami Picasso!” he goes on, most wonderfully abetted by Poulenc. Nothing could be more apt when Parade has just been on the stage, yet the singer might as well have been the sacristan in Tosca for all that people made of what he was saying.
Here and elsewhere it was Hockney and Manuel Rosenthal who made the evening what it was—Hockney for freshness, wit, and freedom from operatic convention and Rosenthal for the sense of style that he learned more than fifty years ago as a composition student of Ravel’s. It would be wrong to pretend that these performances had the abandon, the total command of every consonant, and the felicity of phrasing that Denise Duval and her colleagues brought to the stage of the Opéra-Comique. Musically, a residuary carefulness was fundamental to it. But, when that is said, what a sense of fun came over in Rosenthal’s direction, and in Hockney’s costumes and sets! Hockney is admired, and rightly so, for his own work, but when he works with big creative natures in the theater he displays an exemplary and an ever-inventive loyalty—to Jarry in the Ubu Roi which began his stage career in the 1960s, to Stravinsky in The Rake’s Progress for Glyndebourne in 1975, and to Mozart in Die Zauberflöte, once again for Glyndebourne not so long ago.
Francis Poulenc was always modest when he spoke of his work. Asked about the orchestration of the Mamelles, he would say that it was just a straightforward affair: an orchestra like any other. He couldn’t make extraordinary noises that sounded quite right, as Ravel could, and so he didn’t try. He didn’t see himself as an opera buffa composer, or even as an operetta composer, much as he admired André Messager in that capacity. He was just himself, for better or worse. If someone pointed out that there were choral passages in the Mamelles that sounded like part of his Stabat Mater, he said that that was the way he was and he couldn’t change. If someone said that the waltz at the end of the Mamelles was one of the most poignant things of its kind he said that well, yes, it might sound like operetta for a moment, but that because he had no true gift for operetta it came out as wry, and full of regrets, and not larky after all. All this, word for word, was echoed by David Hockney.
One of the silliest things ever said by Erik Satie was that although Ravel had refused the Legion of Honor, all his music accepted it. How clever that sounds, to the ignorant, and how wide of the mark it seems when we hear L’Enfant et les Sortilèges performed as it was performed at the Met! L’Enfant must have had a great performance in Monte Carlo in 1925, when Victor de Sabata conducted and the maître de ballet was George Balanchine. But for the sense of wonder, for a power of invention in the stage picture that matched the music point by point, and for the sense of collective ardor that Manuel Rosenthal drew from orchestra and singers alike, the performance at the Met was in a very high class. From the moment that the two oboes began their duet at the very beginning we felt ourselves in a master’s hands.
Because L’Enfant is seen through the eyes of a child, and because it is full of furniture that comes to life and woodland creatures that talk and sing—and reproach him, gently or otherwise, for being a bad boy—it is easy to think of it as in some way less consequential than La Gioconda, Manon Lescaut, Les Huguenots, and all the other ponderosities (Dialogues des Carmélites not excluded) that the Met audience takes so seriously. There is not a word in L’Enfant about grown-up passions, grown-up ambitions, or grown-up conflicts. But if we look to art for lessons in life, then L’Enfant is worth all the others put together, for it teaches us that destruction is self-destruction, that the way to get on with other people is to understand them and look after them, rather than to try to push them around, and that love is to be valued for itself and not for any immediate advantage that it can bring us. It also teaches us that feeling exists where we least expect to find it, and that it is by being attentive to the secret order of things that we may hope to get home and safe at the end of the day.
Not that L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is at all preachy. Colette loaded every line of her text with her particular down-to-earth view of the world. When Ravel had something serious to say he conjured new seductions from the orchestra, using even a cheese-grater as his accomplice. He put everything that he knew into L’Enfant, from the choral music of the French Renaissance to that new invention, the fox-trot, and he got them all to live together.
The designer’s problem, and the director’s, is to do justice to Colette without distracting the audience from the music. Hockney did this to perfection, over and over again. One heard the house hold its breath when the apparently aimless to-and-fro at the rise of the curtain turned out to have set up precisely the kind of nursery, somewhere in Normandy, that Colette asks for. It held its breath again in the great transformation scene, when the action moves from indoors to outdoors and a huge spreading tree, with luminous flower beds beyond, matches the awesome and multitudinous insect sounds in the orchestra.
There were momentary failures, either of Hockney’s or of Dexter’s doing. Not all the furniture was quite what Colette asked for. Nor were its antics always to the point. The orchestra, here and there, was incomparably more vivid and more exact than what was happening on the stage. When the animals go berserk, there was no real sense of danger. And when, toward the end, Ravel spreads a halo of pure sound over the reconciliation between the Child and the creatures of the forest, three very winsome frogs invoked the shade of le grand Walt (Disney, not Whitman) when all that we wanted was to hear the music and not be bothered. But these were passing blemishes. What mattered was that one of the quickest-witted works in the operatic repertory for once found its visual equivalent. When L’Enfant et les Sortilèges ended with the child’s cry of “Maman!” (a falling fourth, unsupported by the orchestra), we felt that a great and difficult human adventure had been brought to its proper conclusion by people who loved the work and knew exactly how to serve it. “They order these things better in France?” Thanks to Manuel Rosenthal, David Hockney, John Dexter, and their colleagues, I very much doubt it.
April 30, 1981