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Companion Pieces

A Ravel / Puccini double bill,
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


It is possible to imagine L'Heure Espagnole as a lively one act farce by Offenbach or Chabrier. But refracted through the lens of Ravel's genius, we get something far more curious. The Royal Opera chose the work as a companion piece to Puccini's Gianni Schicchi in the new double bill directed by Richard Jones (seen Saturday 21 April 2007).

The characters in Ravel's opera are all stock types -- the elderly cuckolded clockmaker, Torquemada (Bonaventura Bottone), his sexually active young wife, Concepcion (Christine Rice), her drippy, poetry-writing lover, Gonsalve (Yann Beuron), her elderly admirer, Don Inigo Gomez (Andrew Shore) and the hunky muleteer, Ramiro (Christopher Maltman).

Ravel does not dig too deeply, we don't learn much about their background or motives. Instead he surrounds them with a tissue of narrative and comment in the orchestra. He uses a wide range of instruments, including a contrabass sarrusophone -- something the Royal Opera House provided. The colourful orchestration is apparent from the very beginning where the score includes the ticking of three clocks, at markedly varying speeds. Ravel's clockmaker's shop is a place of magical mystery, a haunting place, ripe with potential and transformation. His score was beautifully realised by Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera House Orchestra. The orchestra, another character in the opera, responded superbly.

Into this magical shop, Ravel brings a plot as precise as clockwork. It takes place in real time, the hour of the plot is precisely delineated by the chiming of the town clock in the score. Director Richard Jones always seems at his best in comedy, he has a precise way with the mechanics required of comic plots and seems to indulge in less of the expressive exaggeration which you find in his more serious productions.

Jones and his set designer, John Macfarlane, placed the clockmaker's shop firmly in the 1950s, with a gloriously overblown wallpaper and a view of the street outside. As the curtain went up, the set was at the rear of the stage and during the mysterious prelude the set came nearer and nearer.

As Concepcion, Christine Rice was wonderfully uninhibited with a gloriously technicolour costume (costume designer Nicky Gillibrand) to match. She exuded sex (and desperation) whilst never overdoing it and moving into complete vulgarity.

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Copyright © 25 April 2007 Robert Hugill, London UK


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