L’Heure espagnole and L’Enfant et les sortilèges
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, August 6
By Rodney Milnes
First things first: both these operatic gems were most beautifully played and conducted by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Kazushi Ono, the fastidious orchestral
textures perfectly realized, the ebb and flow seamless. Indeed, so diaphanous was much of the sound in L’Enfant that the singers were fielding more tone than strictly necessary, especially in a piece where the words are as important as the notes. But musically this—the second night of the run—was an evening for connoisseurs.
Laurent Pelly’s new production of L’Enfant (in sets by Barbara de Limburg, and
costumes by Jean-Jacques Delmotte and himself) was pure delight from beginning to end, rightly dominated by the diminutive Khatouna Gadelia as the Child, who managed to be sympathetic even when wreaking havoc on his-her surroundings, and sang the aria to the vanished Princess almost unbearably movingly. She is a little star.
Some directors when faced by the near-impossible demands of the scenario tend to panic and over-decorate, over-invent, but Pelly aimed at the opposite, and the simplicity of the visual ideas was the production’s greatest strength—I have never witnessed such eloquent use of black space. So, just a giant Clock face, nothing else, Teapot and Cup on trucks, Child at an outsize desk, Fire on a basic see-saw contraption. One effect was particularly memorable, the torn wallpaper, too often something wispy off-stage; here the chorus (on excellent form) came right downstage and let us have it full-voice. There were quite elaborate drops for the various mathematical problems, raucously voiced in part by a first-rate children’s chorus—both funny and nightmarish.
Magic came after the antics of the rather dangerous Cats with, again, a bare stage gradually populated by humanoid trees, reminiscent of John Bury’s from his 1981 Dream. Joël Adam’s lighting brought us a series of ravishing stage pictures, lightening and darkening—like the work—according to dramatic mood.
It helped to have so many French singers in the cast, outstanding among them François Piolino in what it is tempting to call the Hugues Cuénod roles of Teapot,
Arithmetic and Frog, with Elodie Méchain as Maman, the Teacup and the Dragonfly, which is one of those absolutely crucial little roles, as is the Bat, here taken by Julie Pasturaud. The US-trained Kathleen Kim glittered with astonishing accuracy as Fire, Princess and Nightingale.
It is hard to believe that it was the same Laurent Pelly who was responsible for L’Heure, an existing staging from Paris refurbished here for Glyndebourne. The set was crammed with mechanical objects, none of them corresponding to those specified by Ravel and his music. In The Times, Richard Morrison cited Benny Hill as indication of the level of comedy, odd, until you recall that Mr Hill is more popular on the Continent than he is here, a mystery into which it might be best not to go. Anyway, when Stéphanie d’Oustrac’s libidinous (understatement) Concepción tore her knickers off at the sound of Gonzalve’s off-stage voice, the tone was set and seldom let up, with nearly all on stage over-acting like fury (Piolino the honourable exception). As a friend remarked, the piece is funny enough already and to try and make it funnier is to destroy it. It is comedy of the raised eyebrow, not the dropped drawers.
The one dubious piece of casting was that of Paul Gay as Don Inigo, a role demanding something approaching a basse chantante, but Gay is a bit of a bawler, and any sense of legato (or wit) went missing, as it did with Elliot Madore’s Ramiro in his two little solos; and Madore was made to act too pleased with himself in quite the wrong way, forever acting super-butch and suggesting no difference in the weight of the two clocks. Or was that supposed to be Verfremdung? Alek Shrader sang Gonzalve nicely.The show ended with a surtitle involving a play on the words of mules and ‘asses’ which was vulgar without being funny, the precise opposite of Ravel’s comedy. A dismal 40 minutes—L’Heure exécrable.