L'Heure espagnole / Gianni Schicchi - Royal Opera House, 20 October 2009
This Richard Jones double-bill blew me away on its debut a couple of years back. I'm surprised to see it has faltered at the box office on this first revival (see here for half price tickets offer). I can only assume it’s the lack of star names and well-known titles that are keeping people away, because it’s one of the finest things in the current ROH repertoire.
Richard Jones is always at his best when he's showing human nature at its worst. Here he gets to play with lust, greed and deception - all shot through with wicked humour. Garish wallpaper and charity shop kitsch frame a pair of frenzied sitcoms. Ravel's has a certain French charm with its macaroon colours and gentle farce. A crudely-painted pair of Beryl Cook bewbs in a polka dot bra is spread across the curtain as the opening image. It sets the tone immaculately. For the darker humour of Gianni Schicchi, the wallpaper's stained and the opening shot is a plate of writhing spaghetti. Secks for the French, food for the Italians. Perfect.
Revivals can be shoddy affairs bearing little relation to the original - perhaps that's why Jones likes to direct his own. But this time he was gettin’ roped up and shot down elsewhere, so the task fell to staff director Elaine Kidd. A brilliant job she's done too. It looks better rehearsed than some revivals, and with most of the previous cast returning characterisations are rounded and performances assured.
Comic opera often isn't really that funny, however much we will it to be, but in the clock-stuffed L’Heure espagnole the timing is so acutely finessed the laughs are genuine. Ruxandra Donose is perfect as the frustrated housewife who baits her unsuitable suitors with barmaid bewbs and the sort of simmering allure I wish Elina Garanca had been able to muster up for Carmen. Yann Beuron as the self-obsessed poet she wants,
OK, it sags here and there, but that’s down to the composer not the production. Ravel’s strengths are more pictorial than dramatic. The inventiveness of the score is enhanced by Pappano’s delicately evocative interpretation, but the dramatic pacing, or lack of it, is something even he can do nothing about.
Gianni Schicchi is a different matter. There’s as much action as a full opera, but it’s telescoped down to a fat-free sixty minutes. The music is trimmed to the bone and supports the text without cliche. If story telling is what matters, it’s Puccini’s finest creation. The misanthropy which sometimes strikes a sour note in his work is turned to advantage in darkening a cynical portrayal of the family who'll stoop to anything to get their hands on their recently-deceased relative's fortune.
Thomas Allen sings the title role as though born to it. Looking like he’s stepped out of a round of Super Mario Bros, he favours rude over beauty of tone – and his quivering impersonation of the dying man is a bonus. The young lovers weren't quite as perfect. Stephen Costello (Rinuccio) has a fine voice, but it's not consistently focussed. And he ran out of wind at a couple of critical moments, notably the final bar of Avete torto. On this showing, he's still a work in progress. Maria Bengtsson sang prettily though tentatively, and undermilked the big tune, Lauretta's O mio babbino caro. But this really is the quintessential ensemble piece, and all the cast (especially Gwynne Howell and Elena Zilio) revelled in the sheer awfulness of the grasping family.
OK, so it doesn't pack the emotional punch of Loy's remarkable Tristan und Isolde, and Richard Jones's ironic appraisal takes us even further away from empathising. But a little light relief is always welcome.
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