RavelMaurice Ravel - L’Heure Espagnole, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges

Glyndebourne, 2012 | Kazushi Ono, Laurent Pelly, Elliot Madore, François Piolino, Stéphanie d’Oustrac, Alek Shrader, Paul Gay, Khatouna Gadelia, Elodie Méchain, Julie Pasturaud, Kathleen Kim, Natalia Brzezinska, Hila Fahima, Kirsty Stokes | Live Internet Streaming - 19 August 2012

It seems only natural to bring together the two short one-act operas by Maurice Ravel, the only two opera works written by the French composer, but they are strangely - perhaps on account of the different challenges presented by the two works - more commonly performed separately or alongside short works by other composers (Zemlimsky’s fairytale Der Zwerg is often seen as a younger audience-friendly companion for L’Enfant et les Sortilèges than the risqué comedy of L’Heure Espagnole). Glyndebourne’s production for the 2012 Festival therefore provides an interesting opportunity to compare two works that aren’t often performed, all the more so since they are both directed for the stage by Laurent Pelly, a director with a good affinity for the works who is able to highlight both their commonalities and their contrasts.

One thing that both operas have in common, even if they use different means of expression, is Ravel’s playful and inventive approach to musical accompaniment. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges might be made up of apparently more conventional set pieces for singing, while L’Heure Espagnole is more declamatory in recitative than sung, but both make use of American influenced jazz and ragtime and other unconventional arrangements and instruments in order to express the variety of situations, movements, gestures and attitudes that take place from moment to moment over the course of both of the works.

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Set inside a clock shop in Toledo, if the music of L’Heure Espagnole isn’t conventionally rhythmic outside of the famous synchronised ticking of three different clock times at its intro, there is nonetheless a definite metronomic timing to the pace of the opera itself. While the clockmaker is out of the shop for an hour - by deliberate arrangement - checking the town clocks, the presence of a customer, the muleteer, forces his wife Concepción to have her lovers transported pendulum-like back and forth to and from her bedroom inside grandfather clocks by the unwitting but brawny muleteer. The opera has all the timing and rhythm of a typical French farce of slamming doors and hiding of a succession of lovers in wardrobes, and the rhythm of all these comings and goings even reflects the sexual implications that are suggested but not shown.

If that seems a bit of a limp subject for an opera, well imagine how this only reflects the disappointment felt by the clockmaker’s wife at the disappointing performances of the poet Gonzalve and the banker Don Iñigo Gómez who talk a good line but prove to be not really up to the job - unlike the muleteer Ramiro who handles all the exertions demanded of him by Concepción unfailingly. All such considerations are taken into account by Ravel, as lightweight as they might seem, including the suggestive double-entendres that come along with talk of pendulums, and the work is scored accordingly with flirtatious melodies, bursts of bluster, and shrill lines of frustration and disappointment, everything moreover seeming to play to the deliberate pace dictated by the presence of the muleteer. Ravel’s knowing treatment belies the apparent lightness of the work - the nod-and-a-wink ensemble finale offers no moral other than the intention of the work to “stress the rhythm, spice up the lines, with a soupcon of Spain” - but it’s never so clever as to get in the way of the genuine comic potential and satire of the subject.

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L’Heure Espagnole is not an opera that you would think requires much in the way of sets or props, but set designers Caroline Ginet and Florence Evrard pull out all the stops for this Glyndebourne production, fitting out the Toledo clock shop with a variety of timepieces, religious icons and assorted junk. It serves the purpose of being eye-catching as well as perfectly functional for the farcical operations of the plot, but it also serves that perfect sense of situation that you find in Laurent Pelly productions, where you feel not so much in a real-world location as in the world of the music itself. Evidently, in such a work it’s all about the timing and Pelly, along with conductor Kazushi Ono, find that ideal pace of rhythm and direct the five-person cast through the work wonderfully well.

The singers too realise that it’s all there in the music and match the tone of their performances to the sense of comic timing and the intricacies of the score. Stephanie d’Oustrac is alternately flirtatious and ferocious as the man-eater Concepción, commandingly delivering lines that demand obedience and satisfaction. Alex Shrader puts on a fine comic performance as the poetry-spinning Jim Morrison-lookalike Gonzalve, with a lovely tenor voice to match his lyrical musings, while Paul Gay’s bass-baritone seems better suited to the lighter comic delivery of Don Iñigo Gómez here than the heavier dramatic roles such as Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust that I’ve seen him sing before. Elliot Madore was excellent in the vital role of Ramiro, as was François Piolino as Torquemada.

With its surreal imagery, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges is a stage designer’s dream (or perhaps nightmare), but there is a deeper psychological element to author Colette’s original libretto of a naughty schoolboy and its treated to some ravishingly beautiful as well as inventive and playful arrangements by Ravel. In the case of the Glyndebourne production, it’s definitely a dream to have the imagination of Laurent Pelly set loose on a work like this. You get a sense of being somewhere unique with Pelly at the best of times, but it’s even more the case with a work like this. By the laugh raised from the Glyndebourne audience right from the moment the curtain opens on an over-large table and chair that miniaturises Khatouna Gadelia as an ‘enfant’, you can tell that the stage design has already made the right kind of impact. But there are still considerable challenges that have to be met not only to have the child’s mother appear as a grown-up within this set (it’s very well done), but in the rapid changes of scene that are required over the course of the rest of this short work that also relies on the keeping of a regular rhythm.

Having a tantrum at being told he has to do his homework, the victims of the child’s violent and selfish actions come back to haunt him as enchanted objects, each forming a little scene of their own. A dancing Sofa and an Armchair give way to a spinning Clock, than a Teapot and a China Cup, the Flames from the fireplace and then the Shepherd and Shepherdess from the wallpaper that the child has torn in his bad temper, each of them scolding the child for his behaviour, the Princess from the ripped-up storybook making him tearfully aware of the consequences of his actions. The separate pieces slip in and out of the dark like flitting figments of a child’s imagination, each imaginatively assembled, but contributing to create a surreal mood that has more sinister, or perhaps just deeper psychological significance that becomes clear with the final cry of ‘Maman’ at the arises out of the musical arrangements as much as from the psyche of the child.

The challenge of staging the work then is not just in keeping that procession of scenes moving, but in linking them together in a way that they lead to that natural conclusion. That progression is there in the music too, which seems to be made up of a variety of styles, some melodic, others less so, some abstract and playful, such as the song of the Cats, whose mewling vocalises their discontent just as effectively as an words. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges does feel at times like it’s trying to be too clever in this regard - and exercise in mood expressed very precisely and evocatively in musical and visual terms - all the more so considering the light subject of a naughty child being scolded by the objects that he has inflicted his anger upon, and it might indeed come across like that were it not for the ending in Colette’s libretto and the interpretation placed on it by the strong combination of Pelly’s direction and Ono’s approach to the score.

That really comes together then, as it should, in the final scenes where the knife-scored trees and the creatures of the woods - squirrels, dragonflies and frogs - bring us back to nature and, through them, to the essential nature of the child itself. L’Enfant et les Sortilèges isn’t just a clever theatrical show of animated objects and anthromophism - well, it is and it needs to be, but it’s also more than that. The director and conductor have their part to play in making the work more meaningful than that, in making its meaning come to life, but the singers have a large part to play in that as well, and it’s a work that is just as challenging in that regard. Khatouna Gadelia isn’t the strongest of singers to rise above this cacophony, but she doesn’t have to be, and it’s much more important that she gets across that this is the journey of a child’s experience. Kathleen Kim takes on the challenge of the coloratura Fire, Princess and Nightingale roles well, but there’s strong work here also from L’Heure Espagnole’s team of d’Oustrac, Gay, Madore and Piolino. The work of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus was also instrumental in maintaining that continuity within the work as well as in the combination of the two works as a fascinating double-bill.

The Ravel Double Bill was reviewed here from the Live Internet Streaming broadcast via The Guardian.