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Ruxandra Donose as Concepcion [Photo by Johan Persson courtesy of the Royal Opera House]
26 Oct 2009

Ravel and L’Heure Espagnole at Covent Garden

Greed, lust and folly … Richard Jones’ comic double bill, first seen in 2007 and faithfully revived here by Elaine Kidd, certainly sharpens the spotlight on those eternal human foibles.

Maurice Ravel: L’Heure espagnole
Giacomo Puccini: Gianni Schicchi.

Director: Richard Jones. Set Designer: John Macfarlane. Costume Designs: Nicky Gillibrand. Lighting: Mimi Jordan Sherin. Choreography: Lucy Burge. Illusionist: Paul Kieve. Conductor: Antonio Pappano.
L’Heure espagnole — Torquemada: Bonaventura Bottone; Concepcion: Ruxandra Donose; Gonzalve: Yann

Above: Ruxandra Donose as Concepcion

All photos by Johan Persson courtesy of the Royal Opera House


Yet this is not an evening of dark cynicism: John MacFarlane’s front cloths for Ravel’s L'Heure Espagnole and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi for — a glimpse of busty cleavage, enticing coils of pasta — signal that it’s earthly pleasure and not divine punishment which is centre stage in these witty, delightful productions.

Macfarlane’s set for Ravel’s one-act gem is inspired. Frustrated by her husband’s prim devotion to his business affairs, and longing for more action in the boudoir, Concepcion, the frisky wife of the town clockmaker, Torquemada, is literally confined in the false proscenium. There are many clever touches; as when the embossed rose wallpaper and rich curtains are slyly transformed by Mimi Jordan Sherin’s slick lighting from shop décor to bedroom draperies. Torquemada’s weekly maintenance tour of the civic clocks offers Concepcion her sole hour of freedom, and the passionate poet, Gonzalve, is quick to take advantage. But, on this occasion, Torquemada has ordered Ramiro, a muleteer, to wait in the shop. The overwhelming number of ticking clock faces reminds us of just how little time Concepcion has to enact her plan, adding a tinge of hysteria to the frantic mood. And, there is plenty of opportunity for farce and slapstick, as first Gonzalve and then a second admirer, the banker Don Inigo Gomez, hide in the clocks, while Concepcion decides to spurn both, in favour of the brawny Ramiro.

The characters are parodies worthy of commedia dell’arte — the bloated banker, the idealist poet, the gullible youth, the frustrated housewife — and they are clothed in suitably garish costumes by Nicky Gillibrand. The Romanian soprano, Ruxandra Donose, is impressive as the aptly named Concepcion, fully convincing as she grows ever-more frustrated and desperate, and singing with superb projection. As the muscular muleteer, Ramiro, Christopher Maltman’s bright, golden sound is perfect. Maltman bounds with puppyish energy, happily heaving and twirling grandfather clocks at Concepcion’s whim, and showing both heft and lyricism in this detailed interpretation of the role. The hapless poet, Gonzalve, is sung by the French tenor, Yann Beuron, whose warm, passionate tone conjures a suitably dreamy air; Andrew Shore delivers a typically witty and well-timed cameo as the blustering Gomez.

Ravel’s score is rich and ravishing, almost too sophisticated for the ribald tale it illuminates. Pappano paced it perfectly, allowing us to appreciate how deftly Ravel eases between genres — here the lilt of a pasodoble, now a jazzy syncopation, next a pulsing habanera. Ravel is just as capable of musical irony as Les Six, and just as adept at pastiche and parody as Stravinsky. This is a dense, detailed score, with castanets, tambour de basque and sarrusophone supplementing just a few of the sounds supplementing the large orchestral forces. Drawing exquisitely refined playing from the ROH orchestra, Pappano reined in the forces at his disposal, never overwhelming his singers, while allowing the details to serve the stage incident.

A chorus of show-girls joins the cast for the final number on lust and love, the dazzling glitz and glamour both darkly ironic and lushly entertaining: we heed the moral, while relishing the rollick.

SCHICCHI-209-BENGTSSON AS LAURETTA&ALLEN AS SCHICCHI-(C)PERSSON.pngMaria Bengtsson as Lauretta and Thomas Allen as Gianni Schicchi

Long overshadowed by its tragic partners in Puccini’s triptych Il Trittico, Gianni Schicci is a delicious satire on avarice. Buoso Donati’s death prompts an anxious search by his presumptuous but down-at-heel family for his will: locating it, Rinuccio demands permission to marry the peasant girl, Lauretta, in exchange for handing it to his aunt, Zita. All are distraught to discover that Buoso has left his fortune to a monastery, but Rinuccio assures them that there is someone who can help — Gianni Schicchi, Lauretta’s father. Impersonating first a doctor who declares Buoso revived, and then Buoso himself, Schicci conjures a plan to ensure his and the lovers’ future wealth and happiness, while the Donatis make greedy grabs for their inheritance, torn between their avarice and their social pretensions.

Jones gives us quite a dark reading of this score: the grimy, drab 1950s décor, complete with peeling wallpaper, broken television set and rusting radiators, certainly enhances the Donatis’ mood of desperation. The large cast, including children and farceurs, are expertly choreographed throughout, in an astoundingly detailed, meticulous staging which demonstrates both imagination and an intelligent responsiveness to Puccini’s score. Not a movement, gesture or facial expression is misplaced: manic it certainly is, but never messy.

The cast are uniformly superb — a convincing portrait of collective greed. Yet each character is fully individualised through gesture. This revival featured many of the original cast, and they clearly enjoyed themselves, musically and dramatically. Mezzo-soprano Elena Zilio was outstanding in the role of Aunt Zita, confident and controlled; while Gwynne Howell made for a distinguished Simone, the head of the grasping clan. They were matched by fine performances from Marie McLaughlin (La Ciesca), Jeremy White (Betto di Signa), Robert Poulton (Marco), Alan Oke (Gherardo) and Janis Kelly (a hand-bag swinging Nella).

SCHICCHI-374-(C)JOHAN PERSSON.pngFrom left to right: Jeremy White as Betto di Signa, Gwynne Howell as Simone, Janis Kelly as Nella, Elena Zilio as Zita, Marie McLaughlin as La Ciesca, Robert Poulton as Marco, Thomas Allen as Gianni Schicchi

The celebrated aria, ‘O mio babbino caro’, is probably the only number from this dazzling score which is familiar to many in the audience. Here, rather than stopping the show, it was expertly incorporated into the dramatic fabric. Maria Bengtsson charmed and delighted as Lauretta; her powerful, affecting rendition was aptly supported by Pappano, who shaped the phrases sensitively and eloquently. Bengtsson was ably partnered by the American tenor, Stephen Costello who, as the dashing, aspiring young lover, both looked and sounded the part, his ardent tenor ringing out warm and true. In the title role, Thomas Allen gave a typically consummate musical and dramatic performance.

These two stylish, clever stagings offer an evening of light mischief, musical charm and dramatic froth. Delicious — not to be missed.

Claire Seymour

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