Monday 22 March 2021

50 minutes of delight: Ravel's L'heure espagnole from Grange Park Opera

Ravel L'heure espagnole; Catherine Backhouse, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Ashley Riches, Ross Ramgobin, Stephen Medcalf; Grange Park Opera
Ravel L'heure espagnole; Catherine Backhouse, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Ashley Riches, Ross Ramgobin, Stephen Medcalf; Grange Park Opera

Ravel L'heure espagnole; Catherine Backhouse, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Ashley Riches, Ross Ramgobin, Stephen Medcalf; Grange Park Opera

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 21 March 2021
Ravel's comédie musicale transposed from 18th century Spain to a Kensington antique clock dealer

Having given us a film of Britten's Owen Wingrave last year [see my review], Grange Park Opera has gone back into the studio for a filmed performance of Ravel's 1911 comedy, L'heure espagnole filmed in a real antique clock dealers in London's Kensington Church Street with Catherine Backhouse as Concepción, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts as Torquemada, Elgan Llŷr Thomas as Gonzalve, Ashley Riches as Don Iñigo and Ross Ramgobin as Ramiro, directed by Stephen Medcalf, with music from Chris Hopkins, Ognune Lively and Tom Marshall

L'heure espagnole is a tricky work to get right, quite how saucy should it be, and there are all the logistics of male cast members getting in and out of clocks to deal with. The work was premiered at the Opera Comique, so should probably be thought of as saucy rather than bawdy, with the sexual innuendo quite suggestive and knowing rather than explicit. Stephen Medcalf opted for realism, and filming in a clock shop how could he not; with some neat slight-of-camera when it came to the men getting into the clocks and Ramiro's shouldering of them, the results had an engagingly stylised realism too them, emphasising the sheer craziness of it all!. There was some beautifully observed detail, Torquemada was working at a table full of fascinating clock innards and more, whilst the clock maker's eating habits (depicted in the instrumental prologue) were a thing of wonder.

The score had been recorded by the cast previously at Wigmore Hall, with the accompaniment just of piano (Chris Hopkins), plus a little brass and percussion (Ognune Lively and Tom Marshall). This was the biggest drawback, as I did rather miss Ravel's orchestration no matter how sensitive Lively's playing, and there were moments when the complex choreography of the action got the better of the singers and the lip-synching suffered rather.

Catherine Backhouse was a delightful Concepción, less deliberately sultry than some (which is a benefit in the role) and more knowing and edgy; she was more manipulating minx than sex siren. And she brought a distinct element of style to the performance along with a nice line in delivering double-entendre to the camera. As her husband, Torquemada, Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts turned in a beautifully observed performance which made him rather more touching than usual, which helped to rebalance the opera, and the way he sold clocks to the two failed lovers at the end suggested he wasn't quite such a pushover in business.

Elgan Llŷr Thomas entered with a will into Gonsalve's self-absorbed idiocy, more interested in declaiming his sonnets to Concepción than making love to her. Perhaps Thomas was not quite the French lyric tenor that the role was aimed at, but he brought a convincing sense of dramatic style. Ashley Riches proved adept at physical comedy, using his long form and a trilby hat to delightful effect. This meant that Don Iñigo came over as not so much a dry stick as being too self-important and self-absorbed consider Concepción's point of view. Ross Ramgobin as Ramiro (updated to a delivery driver rather than muleteer) proved convincing in the the robust physicality of the role as well as the moments of poetic meandering. He was also nicely naive, but not completely stupid and there were some knowing looks to camera towards the end.

Medcalf's production, by giving the piece a naturalistic setting but allowing the suggestive details and the performances direct to camera, captured a nicely intimate version of the opera which was ideal for film. L'heure espagnole is light yet sophisticated, and all concerned here did more than justice. 50 minutes of delight!

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