The Ravel Double Bill
We explore Laurent Pelly’s L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges. Subscribers can watch now on Glyndebourne Encore.
This month we’re looking at two sparkling miniatures: a sexy Spanish fantasy and a musical fairytale. To celebrate director Laurent Pelly’s 60th birthday, and to prepare for his return to Glyndebourne in Festival 2022, we’re taking a deep-dive into the Ravel Double Bill.
Subscribers can watch L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges on Glyndebourne Encore now, plus an exclusive introduction from opera specialist Alexandra Coghlan, scholar Emily Kilpatrick and author Joanne Harris.
Read on to find out more.
A brief introduction:
Maurice Ravel composed only two short operas during his career – but what operas. L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges are immaculate, evocative Gallic miniatures, exercises in the kind of ‘magical precision’ that defines all the composer’s best music. They are also profoundly different works: the first a French vaudeville parody of Spain and the Spanish spirit, an impossibly elegant farce, and the second an extraordinary, elusive portrait of childhood and all its primal instincts, urges and emotions.
Described by Poulenc as ‘a miraculous masterpiece’, L’heure espagnole tells the story of clockmaker Torquemada, whose pretty young wife Concepción takes advantage of her husband’s weekly absence to see her lover. Ramiro, a hapless muleteer, is drawn accidentally into the domestic intrigue, and the stage is set for an intricate sexual tangle. Pulsing with Spanish dance-rhythms – the Jota, Malaguena and Habanera – the score flexes and wriggles with sensual energy. A large orchestra, bright with triangle, castanets, xylophone and harp, paints the action in rich, varied shades – a glittering musical canvas.
‘This lyric fantasy calls for melody – nothing but melody,’ Ravel wrote of L’enfant. What started life as a ‘fairy ballet’ evolved in Ravel’s sensitive hands into something much richer – an intimate exploration of subconscious desires, of all our childhood selves. A naughty child, bored at lessons, sees his surroundings – chairs, cups, animals – come suddenly to life to scold him for his destructive behaviour. It’s the starting point for a shimmering musical fantasy incorporating everything from Monteverdi to American musical comedy, by turns witty, virtuosic and deeply moving.
Ravel’s librettist Colette, describes it best: ‘How can I express the emotion I felt at…the blaze of moonlight in the garden, the flight of the dragonflies and bats … I had to hold back my tears: the birds and beasts, with those urgent, syllabic, barely whispered words, were leaning over the Child in reconciliation… I had not foreseen that an orchestral swell, spangled with nightingales and fireflies, would raise my modest little work to such heights’.
Why not to miss it:
Director Laurent Pelly has taken Ravel’s contrasting operas and created two strikingly different theatrical worlds – ‘a ravishing series of stage pictures’. Spanish heat and sensuality and squalor combine in L’heure espagnole to create a vividly chaotic, 1970s setting for this tightly-wound domestic farce. Clocks tick, laundry whirs and pulses beat ever faster in this elegant comedy.
Pelly’s enchanting L’enfant et les sortilèges, by contrast, is all simplicity and stylised fantasy. A small child’s afternoon reveries become a trip down the dramatic rabbit hole; chairs and tables all swell to giant size, while cats and squirrels, cups and toile-de-jouy characters all come to imaginative life as Pelly plays with Ravel’s opera ‘like a conjurer’, creating visual magic.
The combination has been hailed as ‘a sparkling evening’, combining ‘wit, subtlety, brilliant design and high entertainment’. It’s ‘a theatrical tour de force that gives full rein to Ravel’s fantasy’.
A great moment to look out for
A dull afternoon of lessons for Ravel’s naughty child is enlivened by a sequence of encounters with the various objects and animals – now suddenly alive and talkative – that he has damaged, broken or hurt. One of the most dramatic musically is Fire’s aria. The blaze in the schoolroom grate suddenly comes to life in music that flickers and sparks and shimmers with heat and energy. Sung by a coloratura soprano – her music high and white-hot, quivering and wriggling through glowing semiquavers – Fire takes it upon herself to warn the child. ‘Beware,’ she tells him. ‘I warm the good, but I burn up the bad!’
Cast and creative team:
Kazushi Ono conducts a ‘well-paced’ account of Laurent Pelly’s inventive and uproarious pair of stagings, realising Ravel’s rich orchestral with ‘seamless ebb and flow’, drawing ‘pristine’ and ‘shimmering’ textures from the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
He’s joined by a large international cast. L’heure espagnole stars award-winning French mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac (more recently a memorable Béatrice in Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict) as the lustful Concepción (whose ‘luscious’ tone is complemented by her ‘natty comic timing’), with charismatic young American tenor Alek Shrader as her lover Gonzalve, Paul Gay as would-be lover Don Íñigo Gómez and François Piolino as her husband. The ‘immensely likeable’ Elliot Madore completes the cast as the innocent muleteer who’s drawn into the intrigue.
Soprano Khatouna Gadelia (‘powerful and sympathetic’) makes her Glyndebourne debut as Ravel’s petulant Child in L’enfant et les sortilèges confronted by a series of increasingly strange apparitions including Elodie Méchain and François Piolini as the talking Chinese Cup and Teapot, coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim as Fire and the Princess (‘a musical highlight’) and Stéphanie d’Oustrac, returning as the Cat and the injured Squirrel.