thu 11/08/2022

L'Heure Espagnole and Gianni Schicchi, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

L'Heure Espagnole and Gianni Schicchi, Royal Opera

L'Heure Espagnole and Gianni Schicchi, Royal Opera

Thomas Allen in a star comic turn as Gianni Schicchi

Will UK Gold now be permanently available at the Royal Opera House? Or was Italian TV being beamed into the auditorium last night by mistake? The 1970s scene before us actually just meant the return of Richard Jones’s inspired sitcom treatment of Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi to Covent Garden. Even before the curtain had lifted we were raising a 1970s titter, being prepped for a return to that decade of naughty slap and tickle with an enormous front cloth image of a Viz-like pair of breasts, bursting from their polka-dotted bust darts.

In L’Heure Espagnole, we watch a sex-starved clockmaker’s wife Concepcion (whose breasts we’ve just seen whizz up into the gods) attempt to tryst, while her husband is out on his rounds. Like 'Allo 'Allo’s Renée, she’s tumbling over her suitors, desperately trying to stuff them into grandfather-clock cases while attempting to cop off with one (a self-obsessed poet performed with bespectacled, be-flared nerdiness by Yann Beuron), then the other (Andrew Shore’s crusty banker with an unwholesome spring in his step). Ironically her timing completely fails her and she’s forced to satisfy herself with the deserving hunk Ramiro (played with a wide-eyed innocence by the handsome Christopher Maltman), the local strongman mule driver.
Like much of the output of the 1970s comedy department at the BBC, the scenario of L’Heure is really not very funny at all on paper. It’s the sort of farce that can only really  come alive with a hell of a lot of work and an exceptional cast. In particular one needs a first-rate comic actress in the role of Concepcion. Ruxandra Donose isn’t that. Her comedy was as spontaneous as a gymnast’s floor routine. She didn’t seem to have a clue why she was doing the things she was doing. Which is perhaps not entirely her fault. Romania probably has yet to experience the pleasures of UK Gold.
The detail, ingenuity and bravado of the production, however, carried the piece. John Macfarlane’s skew-whiff set – a cross between Acorn Antiques and a lost corner of Alice’s Wonderland, atick with clocks and aglow with chintz - is a loving creation which rolls into view at the start from the back of the stage like the image on an old cathode-ray telly turning on in slow-motion.
The sets for Gianni Schicchi are no less carefully turned out, even though this time the aim is for a 1970s middle-class Italian squalor. Loose piles of paper, books and dirt encrust a circular room. An old telly, on which the dying (and soon to be dead) Buoso Donati might have watched an episode of L’Heure Espagnole in better days, sits on top of an old art deco cupboard. Surrounding his deathbed are his grasping family, eager to get their greedy mitts on his money.
They enlist the help of Gianni Schicchi, a schemer and, in this production, a brilliantly realised cocky mechanic figure, one fag in mouth, one behind the ear, trucker’s cap sitting gently on his head, whose swagger and Italian gestures Thomas Allen has down to a T.
The ensemble acting of this cast is extraordinary, the slapstick, this time, deliciously precise. Of particular note was Elena Zilio’s elderly, tightly packaged, conservatively dressed but greedily uncontrollable Zita who starts getting positively frisky at the prospect of inheriting the dead man’s house, mill and mule.
Yet what makes this operatic sitcom ultimately so satisfying – so much more so than any of the fundamentally mean-spirited 1970s BBC classics - is in fact not the dark comedy of the hunt for the dead man’s things but the joyous humanity of the ending.
Puccini doesn’t shy away from potentially destroying the delicate satire of the preceding 40 minutes by pinning his colours to the romance of Schicchi’s daughter, Lauretta (sung by a resplendent Maria Bengtsson, whose O mio babbino caro was heartbreaking) and Stephen’s Costello’s freshly energetic and exquisitely vibratoed Rinuccio. It is with them and their honest, tender love that the inheritance should go, Schicchi tells the audience, and so a small sin is committed for a far greater good.
The double bill continues at the Royal Opera House until October 28. To book, click here.


"In particular one needs a first-rate comic actress in the role of Concepcion. Ruxandra Donose isn’t that." Rubbish. I hadn;t seen "L’Heure Espagnole" before, but found it nigh on flawless. Ruxandra Donose managed to be both smoulderingly sexy and laugh-out-loud funny. I'd recommend checking out the The Stage or Guardian for a far more appropriate review.

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