Ravel: L’Heure Espagnole & L’Enfant et les Sortilèges 

Glyndebourne Festival Opera

17 August 2012 5 stars

RavelFor the final new production of the 2012 Festival, Glyndebourne opted for a relative rarety in the operatic canon – the double bill of Ravel’s two one act operas, written fifteen years apart from each other and separated by the First World War.   And what an emotional distance there is between them, L’Heure Espagnole being all about self-indulgence and the fun and pleasures of sex, redolent of the Belle Epoque through which the composer and his librettist Franc-Nohain lived their early adult life, whereas L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is all about self-redemption and awareness of the feelings of others.  Indeed, Colette’s fable of the child and his willful mistreatment of the objects and animals all around him – before he learns his lesson - serves vividly as metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man, as the survivors of 1914-1918 emerged to testify.

These two very different works then, are unified by Ravel’s utterly gorgeous music for both: L’Heure Espagnole is coated in luxuriant and exotic sound while the sound world of L’Enfant et les Sortilèges emerges through sparse, transparent textures bordering at times on musical minimalism.   They call for very different treatments and in Laurent Pelly’s masterful and imaginative production, they got them.   In brief, L’Heure Espagnole (based on a previous production of his for the Paris Opéra) was a riot of colour, visual gags, vaudeville and good humour whereas L’Enfant et les Sortilèges was a much more profound, darker, visually stunning exploration of the boy’s pathway through misbehaviour to forgiveness at the end by his mother.   With an ensemble really working together, with stage imagery exactly in harmony with the music, what emerged was an opera experience much greater than the sum of its parts: this Glyndebourne production proves (if further proof is needed) that for all their brevity, Ravel’s only two operas are mini-masterpieces.

L’Heure Espagnole is of course pure Feydeau farce: with her husband Torquemada safely out of the way, attending to the municipal clocks, the passionate Conception has a window of opportunity to spend time with her lover.   Or rather, with her lovers – she has a choice between the dreamy poet Gonzalve, who alas finds his own words and rhymes more interesting than Conception’s willing body, and the rich and powerful Don Inigo, who has arranged for Torquemada’s absence in the first place.   Where do competing lovers hide in a clockmaker’s emporium?   Inside grandfather clocks.   Who is strong enough to carry grandfather clocks up and down stairs to Conception’s bedroom?   A passing muleteer, Ramiro, who has popped in to have his watch mended.   And so, like clockwork, the farce proceeds, until Conception realizes that the lover who happens to be handsome, and have the strength and virility she seeks in a lover, is neither poet nor banker but the muleteer – and as the final quintet goes, every muleteer has his day.

The piece calls for a strong ensemble cast, and above all for a strong Conception, played here by the French mezzo soprano Stephanie d’Oustrac.   I have heard her previously at Glyndebourne, and in recital, and as Conception she confirmed all her previous good reports and positively blossomed.  D’Oustrac has the physique du role and the voice to match: her sound is full and luscious, her projection good and her control absolute.   As Conception becomes frustrated with the inability of her potential lovers to perform, she has some dangerously hysterical passages to sing: d’Oustrac absolutely nailed them, making her plight genuinely funny and always staying within the bounds of musicality.   She looked great too!   This was a terrific performance in the pivotal leading role – a glorious (and very funny) incarnation.

RavelBut opposite her, enjoying himself from the moment he smiled his way onto the stage, was the strongly sung and immensely likeable Ramiro of Elliot Madore.   He too had the (essential) physique du role, muscles glistening as he manhandled the grandfather clocks (with or without hidden lovers) in and out of the shop, up and down the stairs – nothing too much trouble, all helping to pass the time while he awaited the return of the man who was to mend his watch.   Madore has a fine baritonal ring and clear French diction, and frankly there was not much doubt from the moment he walked onstage whom Conception would end up with!  He and D’Oustrac made a winning couple.

The supporting roles were well cast.  Paul Gay made a slightly pompous, imposing Don Inigo, his darker bass-baritone contrasting nicely with Madore, and Alek Shrader produced well-focused, lyrical tenor sound as the poet/lover in theory Gonzalve.   Completing the cast in the bit part of Torquemada, Francois Piolino made all that one can make of the role, departing (and returning) on schedule and linking nicely with the quartet at the end as Torquemada makes not one but two clock sales and presides benignly over the launch of his wife’s new extra-marital adventure.

Ravel responded in his score to all the suggestiveness in Franc-Nohain’s libretto, and Pelly in turn illustrated visually the chaotic milieu thus created: clocks whirr and buzz, dials revolve, mechanical contraptions and devices of all different shapes and sizes respond on cue to moments in the score and in the plot.   The action is played mainly from the front of stage, with a central staircase leading to stage rear and to the delights of Conception’s boudoir within.   Sex in the kitchen seems to be on offer when she sits astride a washing machine while a clock dial goes round even faster than a spin cycle: but all this is in keeping with the spirit of the piece, and the music constantly underlines exactly what is going on: flattened chords, interrupted cadences, suggestive little motifs – we hear them, and in this production we see something that complements them, not always subtly but always aptly.   Add to all this the superbly idiomatic conducting of Kazushi Ono, in whose hands Ravel’s orchestration sounded simply fabulous: sensuous lower strings, transparent textures, ethereal woodwind and a London Philharmonic Orchestra playing at the top of their form, and you have a recipe for L’Heure Espagnole as it should be seen and heard: sheer joy from start to finish.

L’Enfant et les Sortilèges started with a coup de théatre: the curtain rises on the child sitting on an outsize chair at an outsize table, and into the room enters the towering figure of his mother.   And this is only the start of the visual stage magic: the fire billows out and pursues him around the room, the teapot and the Chinese cup dance their ballet on the table, the Arcadian scene on the wallpaper is accompanied by an onstage sheep and faces that move as they watch the scene high up through cut-outs.   And as we move into the garden, the small trees and bushes act like a corps de ballet (reminiscent of the Peter Hall woodland in Glyndebourne’s Midsummer Night’s Dream).   It is an imaginative and superbly realized piece of stagecraft, the set designs by Barbara de Limburg acting as a perfect foil to Pelly’s onstage action.  The performance I saw was on Glyndebourne Families Day (with reduced price tickets for the audiences of the future) and the theatre was packed with children of all ages, from six upwards – and how they responded to the visual treats provided.

Khatouna Gadelia sang the child.   Looking suitably androgynous, she gave a powerful and sympathetic account of the role, with pure and incisive soprano expression.   Of the many characters the child encounters, I was particularly impressed by Kathleen Kim, first as Fire and then as the imprisoned Princess.   Kim sang with a beautifully even melodic line, almost entirely free of vibrato, and her Princess aria was a musical highlight.   Madore and D’Oustrac made welcome returns to perform the cat duet: the Glyndebourne Chorus were lively and incisive, particularly in the arithmetic scene, and the whole ensemble acted and sang as one.   And what ravishing music Ravel has given them to perform!   It was in L’Enfant et les Sortilèges that Ono’s reading of the score produced sublime moments: I don’t think I have ever heard ‘Toi, le Coeur de la rose’ sung with such hushed, intense rapture, the orchestral dynamics all perfectly in place, the limpid melodic line making one of those ‘time stood still’ moments.   This was music theatre at its most inspiring and inspired.

Before the 2012 Festival started, David Pickard told this site that he thought the Ravel double bill would be ideal for Glyndebourne.   In a production of this quality, he was absolutely right!   Let us hope that it might be revived before too long, for magical evenings like this one are to be treasured.

By Michael Reynolds

Photos: Simon Annand