I generally have a preference for tragedy, drama, gloom and doom in opera, so when I was offered a ticket for this light comedy double bill, I thought it would be educational for me. The fact that it had Bryn Terfel in it may also have had something to do with it, as I’ll watch or listen to him in pretty much anything*. I should also perhaps remark that my enjoyment of the two pieces may have been affected by the fact that for the first half I had a standing ticket, and my knees were bloody hurting, whereas for the second half I dived for an empty seat I’d spotted, and could watch in great comfort (from the stalls circle, no less).
So, L’Heure Espagnol. The gauze curtain set the tone, being painted with an enormous pair of boobs (in polka-dot dress), Ã la seaside postcard. The sets and costumes, when revealed, were unremittingly ugly, consisting of as many garish colours and clashing patterns as it is possible to fit in a small box-shaped room. (Yes, the return of the Covent Garden famous wonky box staging – although actually it wasn’t wonky this time.) Around the edge of the box, there was more hideous wallpaper, patterned with chillies; I think these may have been intended either as phallic symbols, or to represent Concepcion being ‘hot’. Or both. Very naff, but I assume intentionally so. The story centres around Concepcion (Christine Rice), a housewife desperate for an extramarital shag while her clockmaker husband (Bonaventura Bottone) is out for the day. A great deal of silly farce ensues, with two potential (but ultimately unsatisfactory) lovers hiding in large clocks, which a third potential (and ultimately successful) lover lugs up and down the stairs to her bedroom for her. Sophisticated humour it wasn’t. However, the nicely-judged acting and characterisation of all cast members managed to make it genuinely funny. Yann Beuron, in particular, had a brilliant sense of comic timing as the daft poet Gonzalve, and Christopher Maltman was perfect as the intellectually-challenged hunk Ramiro, effectively doing an hour-long striptease as he removed an item of clothing every time he had to carry another grandfather clock up the stairs.
Despite the subtle-as-a-sledgehammer story, Ravel’s music was inventive and cleverly nuanced, managing to constantly reference both the actual onstage clocks and the general oppressive feeling of time ticking away without ever becoming tedious. It was performed with liveliness and precision by both the orchestra and singers, but doesn’t really do an awful lot for me. I’d rather hear Andrew Shore sing Wagner (well, duh), and I’ll be looking out for Maltman in future, preferably in a role with a bit more to sing.
Some Moulin Rouge-style dancing girls randomly appeared at the end. I couldn’t quite see the point of this; however, it was one of the funnier moments when one of them produced a lasso and tried to catch Ramiro with it, but instead got it stuck in her own headdress.
Gianni Schicchi began with a big picture of some spaghetti, thus replacing the sin of lust with that of greed, perhaps**. The bad-taste 60s-ish visual theme was continued in the beehive hairdos and ugly dresses of the younger female cast members, but less prominently than earlier. The story centres around a bunch of stuck-up relatives bickering over the will of the universally disliked Uncle Buoso (a silent role, who dies as the opera starts). The comedy was obviously rather darker than in the first half, particularly the frequent manhandling of poor old Buoso’s corpse, including shoving him under the floorboards at one point. The acting was generally decent, but often OTT, and not very consistent. However, the exception was Terfel as Schicchi, who was absolutely hilarious. From the moment he slouched onto stage, dressed as a scruffy car mechanic, complete with cloth cap and fag in his mouth, the opera took a turn for the better. Having (personally) come to identify him with roles like Wotan and the Dutchman, it was also highly entertaining to see him on stage doing a funny dance in his boxers.
Puccini’s music was pleasant, and again, well-played/sung, but didn’t do an awful lot for me. There were some very nice voices in the cast with not an awful lot to do; apart from Terfel, obviously, there was Gwynne Howell (Simone), Elena Zilio (Zita) and Henry Waddington (criminally under-used as Spinelloccio). The cheese-feast O Mio Babbino Caro is the most well-known ‘hit’ from this opera, and was actually sung really beautifully by Dina Kuznetsova – possibly the only genuinely moving moment of the evening. All voices on stage sounded pleasant, in fact, apart from the horrid little brat that turned up to irritate now and then.
Overall, yes, I did enjoy the performances. However, that should be taken in context, as I’ve yet to go to an opera and not enjoy it. And no, I’m not a convert to musical comedy. Yet.
* Except that ghastly crossover drivel he sometimes sings.
** I didn’t think of that myself; Simon T said it first.