Ravel Double Bill, Glyndebourne Festival Opera | Opera reviews, news & interviews
Ravel Double Bill, Glyndebourne Festival Opera
Dazzling stagings of two Ravel operas reveal their style and flatter their substance
Ravel composed only two operas, both one-acters, widely separated in time, superficially very different, but both in a way about the same thing: naughtiness. In L’Heure espagnole (1911), the clockmaker’s wife, Conceptión, entertains a succession of would-be lovers in her husband’s absence. In L’Enfant et les sortilèges (1924), the little boy who won’t do his homework, who smashes the teapot, pulls the cat’s tail and rips the wallpaper, suddenly finds his victims coming to life and scaring him to death.
Naughtiness, rather than wickedness: Torquemada, the clockmaker, turns a blind eye on his wife’s peccadilloes because they help him sell clocks; the boy is redeemed by tending an injured squirrel’s paw. It’s the world of Feydeau farces and children’s pantomime – an enchanted world free of painful outcomes; and Ravel provided music to match, all froth and gesture in the clock-shop, all pizazz and sentiment in L’Enfant.
Nobody ever wrote music of greater wit or stylishness
It’s hard to see either piece as the work of “an infinitely greater 20th-century composer than Debussy or Stravinsky,” to quote Rodney Milnes’s wonderfully tongue-in-cheek programme note (naughtiness again). But nobody ever wrote music of greater wit or stylishness, or offered the stage director and designer better chances to display their art without the need for obscure Conceptións of their own. At Glyndebourne these chances have been embraced with open arms.
Caroline Ginet and Florence Evrard turn Torquemada’s establishment into a colourful junk shop rich in clutter of every kind: clocks with faces that light up or hands that whizz round, plates on the walls, guitars on the floor (even the exit signs that the director, Laurent Pelly, was not allowed to remove so made a virtue of). The whole thing is a delight to the eye, in much the way that Ravel delights the ear with his musical bric-à-brac, gasping phrases that lead nowhere in particular, harp swirls and clarinet arpeggios, that whole compendium of Gallic Iberiana he had already drawn on in piano works like Habañera or Alborada del gracioso: style without a great deal of content, but so skilfully and tastefully handled that one scarcely notices its essential weightlessness.
L’Heure espagnole is by no means performance proof. I’ve seen adequate productions that leave the music’s refinement fighting for its life. But not here. Pelly’s direction is straightforward, alert, musical, timed to perfection, just sufficiently overstated, intensely witty. It had the audience in stitches and, by the end, bubbling with pleasure. And musically the performance is a model of idiomatic sparkle, conducted with sublime precision by Kazushi Ono, and tossed off without a tremor by the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s Conceptión is immaculate in every respect except her behaviour: exquisitely sung, man-hungry to the point of willingness to descend from the poet (Gonzalve: Alek Shrader, a masterly Spanish Bunthorne, all hair and verbiage) to the muleteer Ramiro (Elliot Madore), muscular and mindless, barely able to tell the difference between humping clocks and bonking clockmakers’ wives. François Piolino’s Torquemada (pictured above right) floats through these encounters with sovereign unconcern (“you won’t need clocks any more,” he blandly assures his wife, while instructing her lover to “tell her the time” as he goes by every morning). Paul Gay’s banker Don Iñigo Gómez, likewise excellent, spends much of the Spanish hour coffined in a grandfather clock and has to be levered out by Ramiro: quantitative easing indeed. And he has to buy the clock…
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