Ravel: L'Heure espagnole; Puccini: Gianni Schicchi

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 21 October 2009 4 stars

Gianni SchicchiEntering the interior of the Royal Opera House on Saturday night my attention was immediately arrested. What had so struck me, leaving me shocked and amused in about equal measure, was not the familiar grandeur of the gold and red décor, nor even the varied attire of the assembled first-night audience, but rather the pair of painted breasts 50 ft tall that filled the proscenium arch. Subtle it was not, the pictorial equivalent of a pre-flight announcement: 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is a sex-comedy…' Yet as a tone-setting device for the evening's opera it could not have been more effective.

Richard Jones' revived staging of Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi is opera in primary colours – both quite literally and metaphorically. Within its brief two-hour span we are treated to outrageous quantities of sex, silliness, and even a chorus of dancing girls (noticeably better synchronised than their colleagues up the road in Turandot, it must be said). Unlike the traditionally paired one-acters Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci whose union exploits their contrasts, this pairing sees like confront like in an all-out operatic jam on the subject of excess. Greed and lust go head to head in two works whose grin is never less than cheeky, and whose laugh is never less than full-bellied.

Ravel's first – and apart from L'Enfant et les sortileges his only – opera, L'Heure Espagnole is everything that you would expect from a score by such a master orchestrator. Colourful in delicious and unexpected ways, it captures all the acid brights and punchy clashing shades of its Spanish setting without ever slipping into the easy musical clichés of exoticism. Conducted by Antonio Pappano the orchestra gave a witty and neat account of all its nuances without ever over-egging the effects. Synchonisation between pit and stage – so crucial if operatic comedy is really to work – was perfect, adding a much-needed touch of elegance to the slapstick on-stage action.

John Macfarlane's set designs are looking as boldly charming as they did two years ago, and perform much the same balancing act as Ravel's music, flirting with vulgarity but ultimately ending up on the gorgeously kitsch side of too much. Playing with ideas of a stage-within-a-stage the action was framed within a riotously coloured box (decorated with repeating chilli motif, just in case we had any doubts as to the spiciness of the action to come…) which gave the whole show the appearance of a fairytale taking place in some child's puppet theatre.

The action itself however was anything but PG, revolving around the amorous designs of Concepcion, the young wife of a town clock-maker, who is determined during the course of the afternoon to get her sexual fix. Replacing the peerless Christine Rice who so shone in the original production was Romanian soprano Ruxandra Donose, whose comic timing and well-characterised singing brought much sparkle to the often rather brittle role of the bored young housewife. A perfect foil to her comic turn was Christopher Maltman's muscular young muleteer, the saviour of the sexual day, whose rounded vocal tone was almost as impressive as his muscular exertions. Rounding out the cast as unsuccessful lovers Gonzalve and Don Inigo Gomez were Yann Beuron and Andrew Shore, both of whom oozed and pranced (as appropriate) with apparent comic glee, and delivered solid vocal performances, often from inside the two outsize clocks that make up the opera's pivotal props. With such a strong cast and delicious score it made one wish that Ravel's opera demanded rather more actual singing – none of the roles are terribly substantial – to showcase the vocal goods on offer.

Expansive vocal writing did however abound after the interval in Puccini's naughty fable Gianni Schicchi. A cautionary tale of death and greed, it suffers little from being shorn of two one-act companions that make up the composer's little-perfomed Il Trittico, and the juxtaposition with the rollicking L'Heure does much to enhance its particularly anarchic charms. A real ensemble-piece, the work joins the rather run-down Donati family at the moment of the death of patriarch Buoso. On discovering that he has willed his considerable wealth to the monks and left them penniless, the family scheme, with the help of rogueish everyman Gianni Schicchi, to deceive the authorities and take matters into their own hands.

This is a work that stands or falls with its lead, and Thomas Allen gives every appearance of relishing his superb turn as the canny rogue-with-a-heart-of-gold. If it comes to a choice between dramatic effect and vocal quality (which it often does, especially in sections where Schicchi impersonates the dying Buoso) Allen consistently opts for drama, a decision that works well in the context of a work overloaded with expansive lyric roles.

Led by the terrifying dynamic Elena Zilio as Aunt Zita, many of the production's original cast return to reprise their roles. Marie McLaughlin gives a joyously full-blooded turn as La Ciesca and Gwynne Howell (celebrating his 40th season with The Royal Opera) brings an appropriately blustering gravitas to his role of Simone. New additions are a graceful but under-used Janis Kelly as Nella and Stephen Costello, whose light but flexible tenor works well in the role of the wide-eyed young Rinuccio, showcased particularly in his glorious ode to Florence (a theme that connects most of the opera's lyric outbursts). Swedish soprano Maria Bengtsson was unfortunately something of a disappointment in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it role of Rinuccio's beloved Lauretta. While the role itself is challenging, giving little opportunity for dramatic or musical development, her 'O mio babbino caro' felt distinctly under-sung and lacked any convincing sense of intent.  This small detail aside however the production is a joy, matching its artfully decaying 1950's set for style and musical polish.

This is a double-bill that will not be to everyone's taste; its brashly unapologetic colours are echoed in the no-nonsense delivery of Pappano's orchestra, and the comedic pace never really varies from foot-to-the-floor. Yet it has an energy and a directness that are guaranteed to charm anyone willing to set aside sophistication for an evening and embrace the baser side of life.

By Alexandra Coghlan

Photo Credits: Johan Persson

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