COSTA MESA — Strange things happened Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The Pacific Symphony held the stage, but there wasn't anything remotely like a symphony within earshot. The unifying theme was theatrical composition for and/or about children.
Carl St. Clair, the would-be savior of the local orchestra, didn't just devote the first half of the evening to ballet music. He recycled ballet music best left in the pit or consigned to a pops program: the second act of Tchaikovsky's all-too familiar "Nutcracker."
Christmas apparently comes early in Orange County.
After intermission, the celebrated maestro went operatic, after a fashion, turning to a far more obscure, far more sophisticated and far more fragile challenge: Ravel's "L'Enfant et les Sortileges," a.k.a. "The Child and the Magic."
Although the ballet suite was presented without the benefit of dancers, the opera was decorated with a trunkful of dramatic trappings. It was even captioned with distracting supertitles for those who could not understand the fractured French of a youthful cast imported from Los Angeles' Music Center Opera.
Under the circumstances, a nice English translation might have made better sense. But sense of any kind seemed to be scarce.
Ravel's extraordinarily clever score, created for Monte Carlo in 1925, juggles parody, whimsy and pathos in conjunction with a quaintly absurd, eminently moral text by Colette. Ultimately, success with this cautionary tale of a naughty boy and his domestic rehabilitation becomes a matter of style. A light touch is essential.
St. Clair and his eager cohorts tried valiantly to sketch the action, but they often coarsened the tongue-in-cheeky fantasy in the process. The stoic singers modeled silly costumes as they enacted cutesy charades atop a platform erected in the middle of the orchestra. Fancy lighting effects reinforced the emotive poses. Unfortunately, the result suggested neither theatrical fish nor concert fowl.
One had to admire the sweep, the crisp momentum and, on occasion, the brilliance of the music-making. Stephanie Vlahos exuded churlish charm as the enfant who is taught by various singing animals, toys and props not to to be terrible after all. Appreciative cameos were contributed by such stalwarts as Marvellee Cariaga, Patricia Prunty, Wendy Hillhouse, Virginia Sublett, Paula Rasmussen, Dale Wendel, Richard Bernstein, John Atkins and Greg Fedderly. The Pacific Chorale made appropriately pleasant noises.
Still, the magic remained elusive. Paul King's stage direction lacked imaginative flair. Poetic illusion repeatedly gave way to prosaic improvisation. What might have been poignant ended up seeming merely precious at best, clumsy at worst.
The large audience applauded politely for Ravel's mercurial rarity, but really cheered for Tchaikovsky's Yuletide platitudes.
St. Clair brought plenty of verve and a modicum of lyrical expansion to the episodic "Nutcracker" dances. He sustained little coherence in the continuum of hum-along hits, however, and made some tempo choices that contradicted narrative logic.
The repertory excursion might have been justified by a performance of staggering finesse and illuminating character definition. With a performance as raucous and as superficial as this one, the trip hardly seemed necessary.