Sunday, 25 October 2009

L'Heure Espagnole and Gianni Schicchi, Royal Opera, 24 October 2009

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Torquemada – Bonaventura Bottone
Concepcion – Ruxandra Donose
Gonsalve – Yann Beuron
Ramiro – Christopher Maltman
Don Inigo Gomez – Andrew Shore

Gianni Schicchi – Sir Thomas Allen
Lauretta – Maria Bengtsson
Rinuccio – Stephen Costello
Simone – Gwynne Howell
Zita – Elena Zilio
Betto di Signa – Jeremy White
Marco – Robert Poulton
La Ciesca – Marie McLaughlin
Gherardo – Alan Oke
Nella – Janis Kelly
Maestro Spinelloccio – Henry Waddington
Ser Amantio di Nicolao – Enrico Fissore
Pinellino – Nicholas Garrett
Guccio – Paul Goodwin-Groen
Buoso Donati – Peter Curtis
Gherardino – Alexander Howard-Williams

Richard Jones (director)
Elaine Kidd (revival director)
John Macfarlane (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
Mimi Jordan Sherin (lighting)
Lucy Burge (choreography)
Paul Kieve (illusionist)

Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Paul Wynne Griffiths (conductor)

After the dismal Christof Loy Tristan und Isolde, which I saw again in the vain hope that I might yet see the light, the Royal Opera has provided a much-needed tonic, gratefully imbibed. There was more to enjoy in almost every minute of L’Heure espagnole than, singing apart, there had been in a double measure of that misconceived presentation of Wagner’s drama.

Ravel’s score is a joy, well communicated here by the splendid performance, colourful and precise, of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, conducted by Paul Wynne Griffiths. Vocal performances were equally splendid. Ruxandra Donose replaced Christine Rice, whose pregnancy ironically precluded her from assuming the role of Concepcion. There was no sense of second best here, however. As alluring of voice as she is on stage, Donose ascribed just the right kind of airy Hispanic sultriness – the apparent paradox is surely Ravel’s – to the part of the bored housewife. Christopher Maltman was a cheekily naïve Ramiro, the same going for that near contradiction. Maltman’s dark, handsome baritone was as well fitted to the part as his display of the bulging biceps of which we hear so much in the libretto. Yann Beuron, Bonaventura Bottone, and Andrew Shore all made a great deal of their supporting roles, dependent upon single characteristics, as such comic parts tend to be, without betraying the Gallic sophistication of Ravel’s comedy.

Richard Jones’s production, here revived by Elaine Kidd, is at least as felicitous. The clockwork goings on – not for nothing did Stravinsky liken Ravel to a Swiss watchmaker – were punctiliously and lovingly observed in a riot of colour, so ably realised in John Macfarlane’s designs. If the audience’s response was somewhat over-the-top in its uproarishness, one can only assume that certain members of matinée audiences do not get out that much – or perhaps they do, lucklessly find themselves at Loy’s Tristan, and are grateful for the light relief. The arrival of the dancing girls for the closing habanera provided a marvellous apotheosis, even, if with Ravel, one is not quite sure of what.

The production of Gianni Schicchi is just as fine: an updating from the libretto’s very specific 1299 to a magnificently awful vision of 1950s Italy. The garishness of the frocks alone, credit to Nicky Gillibrand, would sear it upon one’s memory. And of course, the family of the deceased Buoso Donati is magnificently awful. Production and opera agree upon injecting a certain amount of soap into the opera. I only wish that Puccini, in what must rank as one of his best scores, did not lapse into sentimental mawkishness for the music of Rinuccio and Lauretta, though Jones’s cinematic freeze-frame ending captured the change of mood wonderfully. Yes, I know that the contrast makes a dramatic point, but the heartless Puccini is so much more palatable, at least for me. Orchestra and conductor once again revelled in the fantasy of – much of – the score, doubtless well prepared by Antonio Pappano, who had conducted the earlier performances.

There was not a weak link in the cast. Stephen Costello was the real thing as an ardently youthful Rinuccio, with Maria Bengtsson, whom I had previously admired in the very different role of Gluck’s Armide, as elegant a Lauretta as the role permits. ‘O mio babbino caro,’ was well sung, though I cannot help but find it a fly in the ointment. (Audible and visual relaxation of some otherwise inattentive members of the audience made the point all too clearly.) Elena Zilio simply was Zita; one would never have guessed, save of course for the richness of her voice, that she was not a contemporary of the recently deceased. And Sir Thomas Allen made a triumphant Gianni Schicchi, fully justifying the glowing terms in which he described both role and work when I spoke with him a couple of weeks earlier. His comic timing, his attentiveness to Giovacchino Forzano’s text, the musicianship of his response to the score, and the sheer winningness of his stage presence combined in a memorable portrayal. His next stop for the Royal Opera: another role debut as Faninal...