Maurice Ravel's beguiling one-act opera "The Spellbound Child" ("L'Enfant et les Sortileges") -- a sung fable about a mischievous boy taught the golden rule by a revolt of objects and creatures he has thoughtlessly abused -- clearly has a tenacious hold on the affections of choreographer George Balanchine. Tonight's production for the "Dance in America" series (Channel 26 at 9 p.m.), "conceived for television" by Balanchine, will be the master's fourth version over a period of 56 years. He also mounted the original production in Monte Carlo in 1925; the American premiere in 1946; and a revival for the New York City Ballet's Ravel Festival in 1975.
The new TV realization is gratifying on many counts. An English translation by Katharine Wolff captures the tone of the original Colette Libretto. The score is appealingly set forth by a fine cast of singers, including the wonderfully unself-conscious, 10-year old Christopher Byars as the Boy, with the help of Manuel Rosenthal's sensitive conducting .The design concepts, puppetry and costumes of Kermit (Big Bird) Love work hand in glove with Emile Ardolino's video direction to float the action smoothly from reality to fantasy and back.
The least visible hand in all of this, curiously enough, is Balanchine's. The dance elements are pleasing but decidely secondary; tastefulness and modesty curiously betray the choreographer's signature. Despite the charm of the whole, moreover, this is still not the definitive "L'Enfant." The subject brought out the best in Ravel, not just his ingenuity but a rare depth of sentiment.
The score is so evocative, though, that is tends to defeat even imaginative attempts at embodiment -- what the music feeds the mind's eye is much more wondrous and transporting than anything we've thus far seen on stage or screen. (Ravel himself thought Walt Disney might have done the ideal job.) Short of such perfectionism, though, the "Dance in America" version is well worth a look, perhaps even as a follow-up to last week's performances of the same opera by the National Symphony Orchestra.