One might be uncharitable and say that Mid Wales Opera’s production of Ravel’s musical comedy L’heure Espagnole has serious faults and the evening homage to Spain of which it forms the main part chugs along unevenly from there. A second half of musical make-weights ends with the cast, its men in frilly red shirts and, for one number, wreathed in self-conscious smiles, despatching a vaudeville version of Y Viva España, with the audience clapping along as though everyone were about to decamp to Cardiff Airport for a flight to the Costa Blanca. It’s odd, and faintly out of joint, even for those of us willing to assemble at the boarding gate wearing sombreros; yet being incongruous was in keeping with the opera’s theme of dislocation. Maybe, by that token, the pairing was a stroke of inspiration. It would be more charitable and explanatory, however, to say that a comic opera lasting a tad less than sixty minutes scarcely makes an evening’s entertainment. So why choose it?
The eponymous ‘hour’ of music theatre conceived by Ravel, a Frenchman and lifelong Hispanophile, is self-sufficient enough, but like Cavalleria Rusticana it needs an I Pagliacci to make a programme of decent length without having to resort to…well, echoes of a holiday resort, signified by bits and bobs from Bizet’s Carmen and elsewhere. Ravel’s swan-song to his beloved Spain, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, would be a candidate but it’s too short at barely eight minutes. Adding any more would seem like attenuated desperation. There was an echo in that final Y Viva line-up, for the opera itself ends with the cast addressing the audience in expatiation of the work’s moral, such as it is.
Peter Van Hulle
Touring opera, of which MWO is one of the country’s leading exponents, is defined by reduction and economies of scale. It’s the only way opera requiring all the resources envisaged by the composer can be accommodated at the 16 venues which L’heure Espagnole is visiting across Wales and the Borders, some of them village halls. The performance under review was at the RWCM&D’s Richard Burton Theatre, which is about as big as the destinations get. So the production cannot be faulted on those criteria: it must pack itself into a large van with ease. Nor can the performance itself, which is delivered with vocal panache. But whether or not this particular opera is a suitable candidate for depletion is debatable.
Ravel wrote music of rarefied sophistication. It betokens other worlds, often with a feeling of rose-tinted nostalgia for lands of lost content – antique in Daphnis and Chloe – and this can make his sensibilities seem lofty and out of kilter with the sort of earthy characters created by Franc-Nohain’s play. Here they are transmuted to commedia dell’arte by director and designer Richard Studer, whose English translation is also spot-on and has some cracking lines. Ravel certainly re-focuses musically for the farcical L’heure Espagnole, but the orchestral sounds of the original are still ravishing and do not quite square with the ridiculous happenings on stage. Re-cast for four musicians, its main burden shouldered by the piano of music director Jonathan Lyness, the score forces us to contrast a transcription that better fits the compressed and almost surrealistic antics but with massive loss of Ravelian colour, with a fuller orchestral contribution that sometimes fails to dovetail with the comedy. The harp (Elfair Grug), violin (Naomi Rump) and bassoon (Alexandra Callanan), positioned with Lyness stage right, contribute barely more than perfectly timed adumbration, a small mercy for which we are grateful. That said, the reduction is intimately played. But we lose the harsh dissonance of the clock theme, for example, and its illustration of a world chronically and chaotically out of sync. Ravel uses the orchestra as a subtle commentary on the personalties of the characters and this is difficult to bring out in severe transcription.
It might justifiably be said that the foregoing reservations reflect the penalties of all opera in reduction, should therefore be taken into account as a matter of course, and by implication set aside. It’s a point of view. Such adaptations, however, whatever one thinks of the drawbacks, leave the way open for total concentration on dramatis personae. In this department, Studer scores highly. His minimalist, abstract set and the fun costumes leave the stage open for Catherine Backhouse (Concepcion), Peter Van Hulle (Torquemada), Anthony Flaum (Gonzalve), Nicholas Morton (Ramiro), and Matthew Buswell (Don Inigo) to remind us that, despite their pantomime antics, these are individuals with all-too-human hearts, albeit fluttering at different tempi in accord with the horological scenario. Ravel was concerned that his orchestra should fit the peculiarities of the French language; sung in English with such declamatory power and subtlety, the lack of vocal contortion and embellishment ironically suits Lyness’s spare musical score, so we end up with something different from Ravel’s original. That one feels for Backhouse’s Concepcion, married to a wizened clockmaker but pursued by three varieties of doltish male suitor, is due to the humanity with which Studer deals with the action surrounding her. If one were less than happy with Ravel taken down a peg or six musically, the sight of the cast regaling us with wisdom at the end was recompense.
The second half of the show should not be dismissed on grounds of musicality or musicianship, or indeed company relish and unity. Violinist Naomi Rump and Peter Van Hulle as narrator opened vividly with Alan Ridout’s Ferdinand the Bull; Catherine Backhouse extended the febrile distaff side of L’heure Espagnole with the Seguidilla from Carmen, which segued into its Toreador Song, with Nicholas Morton the braggart and the rest of the company – all of them – breaking into a cold sweat at his allure. Backhouse also sang with huge feeling No 5 of de Falla’s Seven Spanish Popular Songs. As well as the final Viva, the five sang a piece by Lorca, before Van Hulle and Anthony Flaum performed a ‘two tenors’ rendition of Lara’s Granada, Flaum having already given us Sorozábal’s No puede ser. We all felt we were going on a summer holiday, if wondering about that envoi at the conclusion of the Ravel opera: ‘Every muleteer has his day’. The haplessly lovelorn among us would have known what that meant.
For further performances:
Friday Nov 9 In partnership with Hafren, Newtown at Theatr Llwyn, Llanfyllin, Powys
Sat Nov 10th The Met, Abertillery, Gwent
Sun Nov 11th Presteigne Assembly Rooms, Powys
Thurs Nov 15th Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Cardiff
Friday 16th Theatr Ddraig, Barmouth, Gwynedd
Sat Nov 17th Neuadd Dyfi, Aberdovey, Gwynedd
Wed Nov 21st Pontardawe Arts Centre, Neath Port Talbot
Thurs Nov 22ndSt Mary’s Church, Hay Hay Winter Weekend, Powys
Fri Nov 23rd Theatr Gwaun, Fishguard, Pembrokeshire
Sat Nov 24th Hafren – Trefeglwys Village Hall, near Newtown, Powys
Thursday 29th Sparc, Bishops Castle, Shropshire with Shropshire Music Trust
Friday 30th Emlyn Williams Studio at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, Flintshire
Sat Dec 1st Criccieth Memorial Hall, Criccieth, Gwynedd
Wed Dec 5th Theatr Colwyn, Colwyn Bay, Gwynedd
Thurs Dec 6th Hafren – Abermule Community Centre, near Newtown, Powys
Fri Dec 7th St Lawrence’s Church, Ludlow – for Ludlow Assembly Rooms, Ludlow, Shropshire
Main image: Catherine Backhouse
Nigel Jarrett is a writer and critic and a former newspaperman. He won the Rhys Davies Prize for short fiction and the Templar Shorts Prize. He has published a novel; a poetry collection; and two volumes of stories, the first, Funderland, being praised in the UK’s Guardian, Independent, Times and others. His pamphlet of stories, A Gloucester Trilogy, is forthcoming from Templar.