David Truslove attends Theatr Llwyn in Llanfyllin to experience and reviews the Mid Wales Opera’s Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole (A Spanish Hour).
If the ingredients for the successful production of small-scale opera in rural areas are accessibility and adaptability, then Mid Wales Opera has scored an indisputable bullseye in this highly approachable and hilarious new staging of L’Heure Espagnole at Theatr Llwyn. In choosing Ravel’s clock-shop comedy for its second SmallStages tour in churches, small theatres and village halls across Wales, MWO has come up with a corker of a production. It will delight those encountering opera for the first time and help dismantle the notion that the art form is inaccessible and beyond the reach of those who might inhabit a sleepy market town such as Llanfyllin.
Artistic Director Richard Studer and Musical Director Jonathan Lyness could hardly have chosen a more audience-pleasing work and have given this Carry-On style caper a wonderfully transparent, vibrant makeover. Much of this is the result of Studer’s racy English translation of Franc-Nohain’s original French libretto (adapted from his eponymous play of 1904) and Lyness’s reduction of Ravel’s score (both created especially for this production) so the original orchestral material can be covered by just four players. Slimmed-down this version maybe, but its resourcefulness – with piano, bassoon, harp and violin doubling a multitude of percussion instruments – is a triumph of resizing. Furthermore, the cast of five professional singers all holds the ear and eye. In a modest touring venue such as Theatr Llwyn, where singers are virtually on top of the audience, acting is paramount, and these young unconducted performers seize our attention with clearly defined characterisations (and diction) throughout the work’s fifty-five minutes. Clock-governed time simply dissolves in this captivating production.
While L’Heure Espagnole (A Spanish Hour) is set in 18th century Toledo, its ‘Chaucerian’ tale about a voracious clockmaker’s wife could be located anywhere. That it was first performed in Paris in 1911 is almost incidental, although its premiere was dismissed by one outraged critic as a ‘pornographic vaudeville’. Concepción is keen for her dull, horologist husband Torquemada to leave the shop for his Thursday afternoon duties of winding the town’s timepieces so she can entertain her lovers; the poet Gonzalve and the wealthy banker Don Inigo Gomez. But matters are complicated by the early arrival of the muleteer Ramiro who just wants his watch repaired, and Concepción’s efforts to hide one lover while she attempts to entertain another is the stuff of farce. The muscular Ramiro obligingly humps grandfather clocks, frequently occupied by her suitors, to and from her bedroom, before they finally hump one another. When the husband returns poet and banker each feel honour-bound to buy a clock and the one-act opera ends with its only ensemble number delivering the moral ‘every muleteer has his day’.
Studer’s ground-floor staging is both elegant and imaginative. Unwieldy clock cases, familiar from more lavish productions, are replaced by two giant, circular cogs (each big enough to enclose Gonzalve and Don Inigo Gomez) set between an upright column of more intricate clock workings. Gold against black is visually striking, as is the erotic imagery of the phallic design which frames a constant reminder of the work’s sexual intrigue. Studer’s compact and unfussy scheme, brilliantly adaptable for small stages, comes with a gratifying absence of directorial interference and unnecessary signage. This unfettered production, in contemporary but Spanish-tinted costumes, therefore allows the performers to work their own magic.
And what impressive performers they are! The lyric tenor Anthony Flaum is a wonderfully self-absorbed and bright-voiced Gonzalve whose periodic muse prompts limp romantic verses, while an alluring Catherine Backhouse makes a delightfully flirtatious and sassy Concepción, revelling in her deceptions and able to deliver lines such as ‘cocks in the clocks barely make my boats rock’ with aplomb. Her rich mezzo-soprano fits the declamatory vocal lines like a glove, a deep-pile lower register coupled with a radiant lyricism above. A fat-suited and powerfully-voiced Matthew Buswell provides pantomime vulgarity to the ageing Don Inigo Gomez and Peter Van Hulle obligingly plays up the naivety of the cuckolded and clock-fixated Torquemada.
Caricature may be too close to the surface, but Nicholas Morton charms as the innocent, dreamy Ramiro in a well-characterised role even if his pleasing baritone at times needs a little more focus. Overall the singing is first-rate, as is the playing from Naomi Rump (violin), Elfair Grug Dyer (harp), Alexandra Callanan (bassoon) and Jonathan Lyness (piano) who fully realise the frustrations, desires and dreams encoded in Ravel’s music. Its combination of Spanish dance and French sensuality is rendered with a lively and tender expression.
The evening’s second half is a treat too – an eclectic potpourri of Spanish-flavoured items embracing Alan Ridout’s hugely entertaining Ferdinand the Bull for solo violin and narrator, the Toreador’s Song from Bizet’s Carmen and a jolly romp through the ever-popular ‘Y Viva España’. This closed a classy evening of memorable, copper-bottomed performances, and demonstrated beyond doubt that under the stewardship of Studer and Lyness Mid Wales Opera is a byword for adaptability and excellence.
The creators of A Spanish Hour, Mid Wales Opera website has up to date information on their future productions.
David Truslove is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.