Ravel at Glyndebourne

25 Aug

I don’t know whether it’s to do with my mood or just the coincidences of my diary, but I’ve noticed that, very often, outstanding performances seem to come close together, perhaps in the same week and then you hit a run of less good ones.  I’ve just blogged about the outstanding Peter Grimes at the Proms.  The night before, on 23rd August, I went to the equally wonderful Ravel Double Bill at Glyndebourne.

In the past, I’ve felt a bit ambivalent about them.  Ravel is not a composer that I instinctively respond to – I frequently find him a bit cold and can take or leave, mostly leave.  Even at this performance, I had reservations about L’heure espagnole. There’s a nice, dry wit about it, but I find a heaviness in the orchestration, a feeling that it goes on just a bit too long and that, really, this smutty joke was a bit more suited to Offenbach or Chabrier than Ravel – who lavishes a bit too much on it.  Perhaps I need to understand French better to get everything out of it.

Despite this, I hugely enjoyed Laurent Pelly’s production which updated the piece to the 1960s with no obvious damage and had a wonderful set with clocks that turned madly, bicycle wheels that whirled and a general air of madness that was great fun.  The cast was fine with Stephanie d’Oustrac a wonderfully louche Concepción, Christopher Bolduc, standing in for Elliot Madore, a hunky, well-sung Ramiro who looked perfectly at home and François Piolino a really amusing, geeky Torquemada.  Perhaps they mugged a bit more than they might otherwise for an English audience but this was an elegant, stylish performance that I enjoyed.

L’enfant et les sortilèges, by contrast, was fabulously good.  Again, it’s not an opera that I’ve particularly warmed to before – I remember being desperately bored by a horrific Opera North production a few years ago.  It’s always a challenge presenting animals and inanimate objects on stage.  Pelly surmounted this triumphantly.  From the start, the child was dwarfed by a massive table and chair on which he was doing his work.  The mother arrived –  a huge figure with a vast tray and we saw things instantly from the child’s angle.  Then, as the supernatural took over, the set more or less disappeared and we were in a dark space with the different characters entering with vast props, again dwarfing the child.  So the wallpaper were convincing paper shepherds and shepherdesses.  The Teapot and Chinese cup did their dance in absolutely realistic costumes.  The animals were readily identifiable (would that Pelly had been in charge of Vixen earlier this season) and the trees in the garden were people, like in the Peter Hall Midsummer Night’s Dream, which moved and provided marvellous stage pictures.  At the end they parted to show a window with Maman silhouetted behind it.

So it looked wonderful and convincing.  And the performances didn’t put a foot wrong.  Pelly’s direction was witty, light but capable both of terror and pathos as well – the scenes with the shepherds and shepherdesses, the Princess and the animals were moving and, at the end, that cry of “maman” evoked just the right sense of relief and joy.  On form, as he was here, Pelly is a genius.

The cast was outstanding and it’s no disrespect to those I don’t mention if I single out Khatouna Gadelia’s beautifully sung, convincing Child, Kathleen Kim whose marvellous coloratura made a huge impression as the Fire and the Princess and, again, the hard working François Piolino as the Teapot, Arithmetic and Frog.  There was a complete sureness and certainty to all the performances.

Kazuo Ono had conducted a witty enough Heure, but was outstanding in Enfant.  He brought a clarity to the textures, perfect pacing and made me realise what a fantastic score this is.  I want to go back and listen to it properly.  The LPO and was on limpid, clearly, stylish form.

There are times at Glyndebourne when the atmosphere of the place, together with the superb preparation and casting, you catch yourself feeling that opera just doesn’t get better than this.  That was how I felt after this Enfant.  I do hope they bring it back.


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