L’heure espagnole [Sung in French with English surtitles]
Torquemada – Bonaventura Bottone
Ramiro – Christopher Maltman
Concepcion – Christine Rice
Gonzalve – Yann Beuron
Don Inigo Gomez – Andrew Shore
Gianni Schicchi [Sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Buoso Donati – Bob Smith
Simone – Gwynne Howell
Zita – Elena Zilio
Rinuccio – Saimir Pirgu
Betto di Signa – Jeremy White
Marco – Christopher Purves
La Ciesca – Marie McLaughlin
Gherardo – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Nella – Joan Rodgers
Gherardino – Jesus Duque
Gianni Schicchi – Bryn Terfel
Lauretta – Dina Kuznetsova
Maestro Spinellochio – Henry Waddington
Ser Amantio Di Nicolao – Enrico Fissore
Pinellino – Nicholas Garrett
Guccio – Paul Goodwin-Groen
The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Richard Jones – Director
John Macfarlane – Set design
Nicky Gillebrand – Costume design
Mimi Jordan Sherin – Lighting
Lucy Burge – Choreography
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: 30 March, 2007
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
In the first half of this comedy double-bill the front curtain, depicting a well-endowed female bosom, rises to reveal far back on the stage the garish shop-floor of the clockmaker Torquemada with ticking wall-clocks aplenty, some vivid floral wallpaper in the background, the shop window, and the two large clocks that will provide much of the humour of the following 40 minutes. As the orchestral prelude sounds out the stage moves forward bringing this microcosm fully into view and setting it within a wall-papered frame of vivid pale-blue and a red-chilli-pepper pattern.
The setting is Spain. The designs of both set and costume are wonderful. It’s a bit like seeing an Almodovar film suddenly come to life on an opera stage, and thus no surprise to later discover stills from Almodovar films in the Royal Opera’s printed programme, packed as usual with scholarly essays and performance histories.
Antonio Pappano’s orchestra relishes Ravel’s exotic orchestration that so subtly evokes the sultry heat and clock-driven pace of life – the percussion enjoying its moments in the spotlight – and members of the orchestra reveal important solo contributions with great panache. From sliding brass scales and harp glissandos and flourishes this is an orchestral performance full of colour and devoid of any feeling of routine.
And Richard Jones, like or loathe his productions, is a director who knows the music – witness the matching of Andrew Shore’s nimble-footed Don Inigo Gomez dancing towards the clock in order to conceal himself within to the wistful waltz-like dance Ravel provides in the orchestra. The stage business with the clocks was well-managed with just the right balance of witty teasing of the audience and stage illusion.
The Royal Opera has assembled largely home-grown casts for both operas presented. As Concepcion, Christine Rice further enhances her growing reputation delivering another finely sung and nuanced performance. Her French is excellent and she is an engaging and natural performer, able to depict her character’s sexual frustration and quick-witted inventiveness with ease if perhaps without the necessary abandon: she sings the role beautifully in her warm mezzo. The throwaway line “sand horologe” when she invites the Muleteer to her room for his short chance with her was wonderfully dead-pan.
As the Muleteer, Christopher Maltman’s knowing and cheesy smile at the audience at this moment was a perfect foil. He was also convincing as the unnaturally strong muscleman and his gradual sexual awakening was wittily portrayed and matched by the progressive removal of jacket, over-shirt, shirt (and vest one assumes) slowly revealing his physique to the initially unimpressed lady of the house.
Concepcion’s two buffoon-like admirers, Gonzalve and Don Inigo Gomez were nicely played and differentiated by Yann Beuron and Andrew Shore. Beuron’s dotty, red-clothed and kipper-tied, poetry-obsessed Gonzalve was hilarious and sung in his mellifluous high tenor. His re-emergence from the clock, very à la Baba the Turk, was very amusing. We should hear and see more of him, and especially in French repertoire. Shore is well known as a talented operatic comic, and never disappoints in characterisation – here perfect as the preening and puffed up banker. His diction is also excellent, though perhaps somewhat dry of tone. Bonaventura Bottone did all he could with the rather thankless role of the clockmaker. Mention should also be made of the excellent dancers of the final scene.
The more familiar Puccini perhaps does not come over with quite such impact. The front curtain, spaghetti and fork, promises more of the same, but it’s the costumes that provide much of the colour of the designs as Buoso Donati’s bedroom seems rather ramshackle when compared with the garishness of the Spanish first half. Of course one needs the contrast but Jones’s touch was a bit more broad-brush here and the direction not always as focused as one might have expected. There have been some good productions of this piece in recent years, the Glyndebourne one in particular. That being said the dark underside to the story, the greed-driven nastiness and Buoso’s relatives, and the not entirely selfless thwarting of it by Schicchi was brought to the fore.
It’s an opera that stands or falls by the portrayal of the title role and Bryn Terfel was excellent as Schicchi, the big blue-collar worker. The modern dress helped tell you much of what you needed to know of the character before he sang a note, but his portrayal was full of vocal and comedic colour and detail.
Buoso’s relatives were a true collection of grotesques, and a very well characterised ensemble: Joan Rodgers’s and Marie McLaughlin’s colourfully attired and elegantly coiffured Nella and La Ciesca were strong presences. Gwynne Howell was an avuncular and witty Simone, although his seemingly ageless bass seems to have lost some of its bloom and power, and Elena Zilio’s strongly vocalised and vituperative Zita was an excellent counterfoil. The young lovers were somewhat faceless dramatically. Saimir Pirgu’s Rinuccio might have been suffering from first-night and debut nerves as his singing was initially rather stentorian and ill-tuned, but luckily he’d settled down in time for his big number.
Dina Kuznetsova’s Lauretta was nicely sung but not very individual or as knowing as she should be. Surely half the point is she’s as cunning and perceptive as her roguish father. Pappano’s conducting of her ‘big’ aria (‘O mio babbino caro’) did not help as he seemed determined to signpost it as “the bit you all know” and brought the tempo to a grinding halt before it, and left an eternity of an applause-demanding pause after it which was unnecessary. Elsewhere the score fizzed along as it should but without the élan of the Ravel.
It s a fun evening though – the Royal Opera seems to be doing rather better with its new comedy productions than serious dramas at the moment.
- Remaining performances on 3, 11, 18 & 24 April at 7.30; and 7 & 21 April at 7 o’clock
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- Royal Opera