L'Heure Espagnole / Gianni Schicchi

Maurice Ravel and Giacomo Puccini
Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

L'Heure Espagnole

Patrons who think the operatic stage is filled entirely with tragedy and lost love and peopled with heroes and villains are urged to explore the world of the Royal Opera's current double bill at Covent Garden, Maurice Ravel's musical comedy, L'Heure Espagnole and Puccini's one act opera, Gianni Schicchi.

To be honest, I didn't know Ravel had written any opera, let alone one as delightfully amusing as this.

Gianni Schicchi is another matter - a little classic far too seldom seen.

This double bill, originally directed by Richard Jones, was first seen in 2007 and is revived by Elaine Kidd. Royal Opera Musical Director Antonio Pappano returns to direct the performances, with Paul Wynne Griffiths conducting Thursday's performance.

The Spanish Hour, as we would know it, is all about the special time of Concepcion, the mischievous wife of the clockmaker of Toledo. While he goes out to wind the town clocks, she entertains herself in the only way a woman no better than she ought to be, does. And she has by far the best of the musical action, too, delightfully sung here by one of the stars of the Vienna State Opera, Ruxandra Donose, in a splendidly sexy performance which leaves no doubt at all about the impossible task her hard-working husband Torquemada, nicely sung by Bonnaventura Bottone, has in coping with her.

There is a cleverly wordy poet, who might have been inspired by an early Bernard Shaw, sung by Yann Beuron and a suitably pompous banker sung by Andrew Shore. But the hero inevitably is the handsome hunk of a muleteer, a role made for the young baritone Christopher Maltman who is winning many friends - and admirers - with this excellent performance.

There is a Disney-like charm about the '50s setting by John Macfarlane and the impish score features prominently the sarrusophone of Martin Field in the excellent orchestra. Yet where the delightful dancing girls hail from is, I suppose, a mystery known only to the director.

So contrasting are the two works that it is almost certainly absurd to look for a link. Yet one there is, since mules are evidently popular beasts of burden in both Spain and Italy.

Thus it is the mule, together with mills and a large property, over which the family of the deceased Donati are squabbling.

More remarkable perhaps, this work was inspired by a few lines from Dante's Inferno! Which doesn't mean it wouldn't make first class material for a one-act play for the village drama festival.

There is a beautifully seedy bedroom setting for this wake. Where have we seen that wallpaper before?

And excellent caricatures of the grasping family by Gwynne Howell ( Simone), Jeremy White (Betto), Elena Zilio (Zita) and the excellent Stephen Costello (Rinuccio) with a lovely La Ciesca from Marie McLaughlin and a fine Nella from Janis Kelly.

Of course, Swedish soprano, Maria Bengtsson almost steals the show with the breathtakingly beautiful "O mio babbino caro".

.Not quite however, since in this revival, the key role of Gianni Schicchi is taken by the veteran star, Thomas Allen who shrugs off the years to bring an energy to the role which is quite beyond even the excellent young singers around him.

I thought the character was more upper class than this, yet how Allen contrives to pour such exquisite tone into this rough character is, I suppose, simply the secret of his trade.

Reviewer: Kevin Catchpole

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