Ravel Double Bill at the Zurich Opera
Performance 26 January 2018
Putting these two operas on the same bill is the right choice for both of these operas. The humorous L'heure espagnole can hold its own against a fair number of other one act operas, but the nightmarish L'enfant et les sortilèges is not so easy to programme with another opera, there being very few to complement or contrast without committing a sin against this jewel. So placing it against Ravel’s lighter work is logical. This double bill, directed by Jan Eßinger, was performed five times in May 2017 at the Theater Winterthur. Then, as now, the conductor was Pavel Baleff and the orchestra, that of the Musikkollegium Winterthur. There have been changes to the production according to Eßinger in a promotional video with the change of house.
I make no apology for more detailed coverage of the latter. It has more roles, the performers covering more than one part. It is also more complicated and more interesting. Do not for imagine for one minute that I think L'heure espagnole to be simply frothy. It is also a morality tale, more akin to Mozart's Figaro than Strauss' Fledermaus.
For L'heure espagnole, the stage started as a greyscale wall with l'heure espagnole written across it in what I consider to be a typically continental script. The lighting flickered across the stage, giving us the impression we were about to see a very old movie. This effect diminished but continued subtly throughout the opera.
Torquemada (Spencer Lang) entered and performed a theatrically exaggerated dumb show that looked like it might be from a silent movie. He opened up the wall, which was actually two flaps, revealing them, when open, to be two walls of a room, the third already in place behind them. Te walls were enormous blackboards on which there were painted clocks as well as two pairs of doors. Torquemada drew clock hands and time divisions on the clocks' blank faces, pulled out two clocks from the wall (to facilitate the comedy later). This all took place as Ravel's pre-Ligeti tick-tocking metronomes and spooky, drowsy music, a more ominous dawn than that for Daphnis and Chloé, lugubriously emerged from the pit. This is quite an amazing musical opening to any opera. It beats being at the bottom of the Rhine any day!
On the doors stage left Torquemada chalked "entrée", and on the doors on the red panel that opened on the living quarters he wrote "prive" which irked me. It wasn't until his return towards the end of the opera he finally added the missing acute accent. I was relieved to finally see "privé"!
The plot unfolded, the cuckolding Concepción, neatly characterised by Paula Murrihy, deciding on either an empty clock in her room then one of two clocks, each containing one of her two hopeless suitors. First up was Frédéric Antoine’s Gonzalve was a picture perfect camp narcissist as a poet too in love with himself and words to perform and get the mechanism of his pendulum started. His successor, the pompous businessman Don Inigo Gomez (Michael Hauenstein) in the role which I find seldom comes alive enough for me in comparison to the others, who is too large to get out of his clock case without help, but who managed to get in alright. Parents and animal owners know this sort! All the while the hunky Ramiro (Andrei Bondarenko) performed alternated astounding feats of physical prowess with a limited art of conversation before the penny drops and the bells starting ringing silently in both his head and Concepción's.
The epilogue is an awkward moment, as I think it is in other music dramas as varied as like Così fan tutte, The Rake's Progress, Britten's Parables, and so on. Nevertheless, visually it brought the work to a close, a rotating glitter ball effect lighting up the auditorium. As the opera ended, the characters closed the two side walls of the room, and the two panels bore a different legend which my eyesight could not make out. A slowly shrinking spotlight, as in the end of silent movies one may have seen, disappearing into blackout, brought the opera to a happy close with the final cadence.
We were then unceremoniously ejected from the auditorium and it was locked off, presumably to ensure secrecy of the construction of next set, since dismantling the first set would apparently provide few challenges.
The call to return eventually came and we entered Collette's cautionary tale of the child's nightmare. Unlike L’heure espagnole, which was a merry romp sticking to the plot, I have a few quibbles with the production for L’enfant et les sortilèges. Firstly, the mother (Paula Murrihy having a much easier time) is a nun and yet she is still addressed as “Maman”, and secondly, the child does not tend to the wounded squirrel (or if he did, I missed it) towards the end making a mockery of the words and the act of redemption "Il a plansé la plaie, étanché le sang." Without these two errors I would have no hesitation in calling this an excellent production.
The curtain rises on a schoolroom. We were given a preparatory dumb play in a schoolroom presided over by a nun, who is to be revealed as "Maman”. This set up the scene as the child in detention for bad behaviour. He was taunted by his classmates before being chased out by the nun. After behaving like a ghastly spoiled brat, overturning the furniture, tearing down a poster, the nightmare soon began. It started off benignly enough with The Chair and The Shepherdess, delightfully played by Ildo Song and Hamada Krisstoffersen, in the guise of the school janitor (on one roller skate) and a cleaner.
The Clock, a maniacal Yuriy Tsiple, violently introduced a more menacing character. His head popped out of the clock above the schoolroom door stage left. Then he was dashing about inside the classroom, before exiting, slamming the door behind him.
The Chinese Cup (Irène Friedli) and The Teapot (Spencer Long), exchanged their enjoyable but peculiar nonsense banter with panache. Though I did not feel it was directed enough towards The Child, especially with the threat that “I boxe you, I marmalade’ you…”.
The Fire was presented as a sultry temptress. Sen Guy emerged from the stove in the classroom dressed in a sparkling red sequinned dress and white fur stole. She sang seductively and the menace underneath was made clear without excessive mannerisms to produce a dangerous femme fatale, hot enough to warm, or hot enough to burn. If only Ravel had seen Fenella Fielding with her classic "Do you mind if I smoke?" moment, might have recast the voice as a rich contralto instead of a sparkling light soprano had he seen this costume.
As The Fire disappeared back into the stove the chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses appeared as a catholic church procession, complete with a (smoke free) censer and reliquary. This scene did not quite work as well as the preceding ones and it felt a little awkward, but the idea of the pastoral being represented by the church fitted in nicely with the logic of dreams.
During this scene Sen Guy, had a quick costume change to become The Princess (La Princesse). She rose from out of the floor of the classroom to tower three times or so her natural height only to descend again. This static tableau required Sen Guy to use her voice to bring out the character, which she did quite well, though I would love to see her in this role again with more experience under her belt to bring out more subtleties. The Princess needs a little more pain.
The Little Old Man representing Arithmetic turned up with the rest of the class for a mind blowing lesson which I'm sure some of experienced at one time or another in a subject we couldn't get the hang of! It is a favourite scene of mine as the music and words come together. François Piolino created more menace from this character than I thought possible.
The ensuing duet of the two cats, Gemma Ní Bhriain and Yuriy Tsiple, brought a darker note with their miaowing and cavorting as they ushered in the scene in the garden, but in this production we are still firmly rooted in the classroom. The wall dividing the teacher’s room came away to reveal and ever increasing schoolroom with a trompe l'oeil effect which brought an other dimension in more than one sense to the nightmare. Figures in the distance were gigantically out of proportion to their surroundings adding to the unease and dreamlike unreality of it all.
The music for this scene can move me to tears and this evening's performance did just that. Whatever musical magic Ravel conjured up worked again. The Tree was played by Ildo Song. This time, instead of the more kindly roller skating janitor his voice was ominous, his huge hands waving like branches. The words "Celle que tu fis aujourd'hui à mon flanc, avec le couteau dérobé... Hélas! Elle saigne encore de sève..." hurt as though one could feel the knife cutting in. Bugger. I'm fighting back the tears at the memory.
At this point the pace picks up as various creatures start to crowd in. It is not possible to pick out any one of the singers as they blended together at this point to bring a perfect ensemble performance. The only giveaway as to who they were was the costumes they wore in earlier roles as they wore huge heads which otherwise disguised their appearance.
I felt that at this point production sightly lost its way. The threat of the trees and animals ganging up didn't quite come to scratch, but perhaps I was still wiping my eyes at this point and was distracted a little too long. The child did not, as I pointed out earlier, do any healing, or I missed that moment totally.
However as the word Maman becomes more dominant in the libretto and the music climaxes towards an apotheosis that Ravel cleverly fails to provide in the music, a screen at the back of the classroom rose to reveal Maman in silhouette, and the child's closing falling fourth of “Maman” and a sudden blackout provided the required effect. It left the audience stunned into silence for quite a while. It was a wonderful way to provide a visual apotheosis that is not in the music.
As for the audience, I was very disappointed by the poor turnout at the opera house for this double bill, We were sitting in the Parkett Galerie level, just above the Stalls. Our row, as were those behind us, was almost empty. It is a shame, especially when I consider how much fuller the opera house was in 2016 for a most peculiar, not to say disgraceful train crash of a production of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail which I saw on 26 November 2016. Zurich did seem unusually quiet on this trip, so perhaps many other events were equally poorly attended.
In the most positive sense, this is an opera that it is hard to applaud at the end, and in this production I felt my emotions were slowly and sensuously sucked out of me. A collective sigh would have been praise enough for this interpretation, despite its flaws. It's an ending where you want to hold a hand and feel a reassuring squeeze to tell you that, no matter how naughty you are, there is always somebody there for you.
OK. Maybe I am reading too much into L'enfant et les sortilèges, missing my best hand squeezing and ever forgiving best friend on what would have been his 62nd birthday. But if I am reading too much, then it's not by much.
The final accolade goes to the conductor, Pavel Baleff and the orchestra of the Musikkollegium Winterthur, who brought out all the magical sounds in both operas extremely well.