Michael Tanner

Stirred by Ravel

It’s rare that both of Ravel’s operas appear in one programme

Text settings

It’s rare that both of Ravel’s operas appear in one programme, indeed that they appear at all. The RCM, as one might expect, did the fullest justice to both of them, and made clear how immeasurably superior the second, L’enfant et les sortilèges, is to the first, L’heure espagnole. L’heure is entirely a comedy of situation, with a libidinous woman coping with an embarrassing superfluity of importunate lovers by having a muleteer carry them upstairs and down in grandfather clocks, until she realises, with her husband’s acquiescence, that it’s the dumb muleteer himself who is the goods.

The music is often merely illustrative, and reveals too fully Ravel’s fascination with machinery. The singers are instructed in the score to speak rather than sing, but so far as I know that is never done. With a central character as lovely of voice as Pumeza Matshikiza (do try to remember that name; I have been trying for two years) one is grateful for the disobedience. Her acting and presence are just as striking, too, and she has shown in three widely differing roles what a versatile artist she is. Without her the 50 minutes of L’heure would have seemed very long, for the point of the joke must drop immediately with any spectator, and with Ravel’s invention at so low an ebb there is little to concentrate on. The production was smart and as witty as the piece permits, the menfolk adequately absurd in their various ways, and as always Michael Rosewell proved an ideal accompanist.

But after the interval magic descended with a quite marvellous L’enfant, as beautiful and inventive to look at as to hear, and at the end stirring, as Ravel almost never is; the final chorus in praise of the child who has learned the lesson of compassion seeming to be situated between Fauré and Vaughan Williams (a Ravel pupil). With a minimum of scenery, but with quite gorgeous costumes, the nightmare of the child — L’heure had been presented as Concepcion’s dream, a harmless conceit to justify making use of the same bed for both works — comes vividly, at times almost horribly to life. I found ‘L’arithmétique’ specially scary, where Colette’s libretto is at its most brilliant, the manic figure parading and spouting mathematical problems of the ‘Two travellers are moving in opposite directions at the same speed...’ type, to music that only reinforces the terrible unease that they evoke. The central creations of sensual warmth and bliss, the Female Cat and the Squirrel, were taken with panache by Sigridur Osk Kristjansdottir (remember that name, too: the RCM has its own methods of disciplining its audience), who sports as fine a pair of legs as you’ll see on an operatic stage, knows how to wear elaborate costumes as though they are part of her, and altogether has a line in voluptuousness which shows that the child has precocious nightmares.

Patricia Helen Orr played the Child vividly, though it was very much a unisex performance. The music here is far more complex and interesting than that of L’heure, and shows Ravel’s capacity to enter completely the child’s mind, the merging of reality and fantasy, fun and cruelty, gentleness and burgeoning eroticism. For the last performance Anne-Marie Granau conducted, and elicited exquisite and sometimes enormous sounds from the orchestra.

ENO’s new production of Purcell’s King Arthur is tersely but accurately explained by the director Mark Morris in the programme: ‘King Arthur is here presented as a pageant — a sort of vaudeville — a sequence of production numbers sacred and profane...I chose to discard the spoken text [Dryden’s] (which I don’t like) and keep all of the music (which I do). The setting is the stage. The time is now. The performers are themselves.’ If the performers are really themselves, they must by undergoing a mass identity crisis, since they keep appearing, looking and acting quite differently, though characterisation isn’t, I suppose, the point. They do the kind of thing that Mark Morris’s dancers always do (so far as I can judge), leaving only a generalised impression of dissipated energy that itself seems unrelated to the music, which all suggests a quite different world from almost anything that we see on stage.

There is a moderate number of jokes, at which a moderate number of the audience laughed in the way opera audiences do. The orchestra played the score beautifully, and Jane Glover’s conducting was a model of affection and propulsion. The singing seemed to be of a lower standard than one might expect, perhaps because the performances are almost nightly (I went to the fourth). The sopranos, who presumably rotate the arias, were vinegary to the point of excruciation, and ‘Fairest isle’, the  showstopper, was painful. Purcell’s  inspiration in this score seems to me uneven, but I know that many people swear by every note of it, including  those hiccupy arias where a singer  repeats one syllable many times before making the next one. But it isn’t a long evening.