Clocks, Closets and Ruthless Adventures: L’Heure espagnole & Gianni Schicchi at the Opéra national de Paris

Ravel – L’Heure espagnole

Concepción – Clémentine Margaine
Gonzalve – Stanislas de Barbeyrac
Torquemada – Philippe Talbot
Ramiro – Jean-Luc Ballestra
Don Iñigo Gómez – Nicolas Courjal

Puccini – Gianni Schicchi

Gianni Schicchi – Artur Ruciński
Lauretta – Elsa Dreisig
Zita – Rebecca De Pont Davies
Rinuccio – Vittorio Grigolo
Gherardo – Philippe Talbot
Nella – Emmanuelle de Negri
Betto Di Signa – Nicolas Courjal
Simone – Maurizio Muraro
Marco – Jean-Luc Ballestra
La Ciesca – Isabelle Druet
Maestro Spinelloccio – Pietro Di Bianco
Amantio Di Nicolao – Tomasz Kumięga

Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris / Maxime Pascal.
Stage director – Laurent Pelly.

Opéra national de Paris – Bastille, Paris, France.  Saturday, May 19th, 2018.

The Opéra national de Paris first married the one-act operas L’Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi back in 1985 in a staging by Jean-Louis Martinoty.  Tonight, however, we saw a more recent revival of the same duo by Laurent Pelly, in a production that was first seen in 2004.  Pelly also designed the costumes and returned to personally supervise this revival.

Photo: © Svetlana Loboff / Opéra national de Paris

He gave us a staging that was very much set in sepia tints.  Though the costume for Gonzalve, with extravagant colours and flared pants, was redolent of the 1960s and there were hints, albeit barely explored, of Concepción’s voracious appetite for assignations with her gentleman suitors, being of that age of sexual awakening.  The comedy was broad, with Clémentine Margaine’s winning Concepción making gestures so clear, that they would have made even those at the very top of this hanger-proportioned venue, feel completely involved in the action.  Pelly gave us a production of great fluency – particularly so as Ramiro was able to lift the clocks Gonzalve and Don Iñigo were hiding in, although there was absolutely no hint of the singers playing them having anywhere to go while they were hiding.  Of course, the immediacy of the comedy was aided by the sheer clarity of the diction throughout the cast of Heure – every single word was audible rendering the surtitles superfluous.  As a staging, it worked and was extremely well received by the audience, their hearty laughing clearly demonstrating that the comedy was hitting the mark.

Photo: © Svetlana Loboff / Opéra national de Paris

In common with Heure, Schicchi opened with furniture lining the back of the stage – here, instead of clocks we saw various permutations of closets, in one of which, rather than a lover as in Heure, the body of the dead Buoso was hidden.  Again, as with Heure, there was a genuine and unmistakable ensemble feeling here, both in the way that he cast reacted and played off each other, but also in the precision with which they executed their stage movements as a group.  A strength of Pelly’s staging is the coup de théâtre as Rinuccio sings about the city of Florence, a distant vista of that city opens up at the back of the stage, the city apparently made out of furniture.  I thought it a lovely way of portraying both the domestic environment of the family as well as the bigger place outside.  I must admit, however, to being somewhat mystified by the cast standing on chairs from time to time, but there may be a reason for it that I was unable to fathom.

Photo: © Svetlana Loboff / Opéra national de Paris

That genuine sense of chemistry between the cast members was also evident in the performances of the singers.  Margaine was a tremendous Concepción.  The erotic longing that she pulled out with that killer chest voice on the word ‘Gonzalve’ was most striking.  There was a vivaciousness to her stage presence that lit up the stage and her juicy, fruity mezzo seemed absolutely without limits.  She dispatched her ‘impitoyable aventure’ with total assurance and ease throughout the range, every word absolutely clear.  Jean-Luc Ballestra was a handsome-voiced Ramiro.  The tone is warm and even and he also dispatched his arioso with sensitivity, bringing out a poetry that made his character more complex and thoughtful that he can often seem to be.  Stanislas de Barbeyrac seemed to be having the time of his life camping it up quite magnificently as the poetic Gonzalve.  His was a deliciously extrovert poet and he appropriately savoured the text, his peppery tenor sounding healthy.  Nicolas Courjal brought his familiar inky bass to Don Iñigo – the voice was familiar, although it was hard to recognize him under the make-up and in the costume.  It’s a full and rounded sound and the text was clearer than I have often heard from him.  Philippe Talbot’s light tenor was full of character as the Torquemada, bringing out the obliviousness of his character to what was going on.

Photo: © Svetlana Loboff / Opéra national de Paris

In Schicchi, Artur Ruciński was a youthful sounding father.  The voice is quite narrow but there’s a warmth as well as a metal at the core combined with an Italianate pointing of the text that gives pleasure.  Emissions are even, although the top tends to lose colour.  If he didn’t quite bring out the humanity in those final lines, he proved himself to be a very able vocal actor – the voice he used for Buoso, light and almost whiny, succeeded in being both different enough to be a convincing impression of another character, but also managed to carry in this difficult acoustic.  Elsa Dreisig was a delectable Lauretta, phrasing her celebrated number with love and affection, although tuning wasn’t quite completely on the note: occasionally flat, at other times sharp.  The pearly beauty of her soprano is absolutely ravishing and her breath control also inspired admiration as she took it at a lovingly slow tempo.  Vittorio Grigolo was on excellent form as Rinuccio.  So often it can feel that he lacks discipline when singing the Italian repertoire – but tonight was different.  The Latin sunshine that he brought to the music, the voice round and rich, even right up to the top, was most impressive.  In the remainder of the cast an honourable mention for Rebecca De Pont Davis as Zita, her mezzo with a characterful rawness, and Tomasz Kumięga making a positive impression as Amantio bringing a full and healthy baritone to the notary’s music.

Photo: © Svetlana Loboff / Opéra national de Paris

Maxime Pascal’s conducting was interesting.  It felt that this was very much an evening of two halves.  In Heure, he brought out a kaleidoscopic range of colours in the orchestra and yet it felt earthbound.  The sultry heat was certainly there in the orchestral sound world, but I also longed for the Iberian rhythmic aspects of the score to also be brought to the fore and in this respect, it felt that the piece needed a little more swing.  Schicchi was completely different.  The sound produced by the band was absolutely beguiling, ‘o mio babbino caro’ launched on bed a filigree strings and whenever that big tune appeared, there was a warmth and humanity to it that I found irresistible.  By bringing out the wealth of colour in the orchestration, he made Puccini’s scoring sound so modern, revolutionary even.  The house band played exceptionally well for him, responding fully and producing precisely that range of colour that made this interpretation so distinctive.

Photo: © Svetlana Loboff / Opéra national de Paris

Tonight, was an evening that gave much pleasure and joy.  The ensemble spirit, throughout the cast, was absolutely infectious and the audience reacted warmly.  We were given a fluent production that really allowed the cast to put the story across with clarity and precision, allowing the laughs to flow.  There was much to enjoy in individual performances and in Heure in particular, the reason the comedy worked was due to the clarity of the text.  It was a satisfying evening overall, even if I did leave with doubts over aspects of the conducting – although Schicchi was absolutely revelatory – and some aspects of the singing.  Still, both operas most certainly worked their magic.

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