One thing I’ve learned over the years: classical music has a fetish for Spanish music. This is frequently the case with French composer Maurice Ravel, who had Basque heritage. His undying love for his neighbouring company would be poured into a fair amount of his musical output, most famous being his ballet, Bolero.
With L’heure espagnole, or A Spanish Hour is an opera, looking back to classic comedy from the past, yet with a rich, new score that is attractive and beguiling. Even in this reduced ensemble versions by Jonathan Lyness, his music exudes out of the instruments, with interesting chromatic perfumes, ticking percussion and whispy rhythms. It’s a pithy opera, though I think most would agree his other work L’enfant et le Sortileges (a sort of French Alice in Wonderland) is much more memorable and charming.
Mid Wales Opera have created a sort of clock shop, with the looming presence of two wheel like clocks, where lovers can hide if they get caught with the maker’s wife. Story wise, its not enough to engage in any suspense and some of the humour is fleeting, even with some highly sexualised undertones. The translation from the French (also by director Richard Studer) does a marvellous job in keeping some lines in rhyme and some cheeky colloquialisms as well. The singers don’t really have much to work with, as the two large wheel clocks are only frequented by the lovers and they also look like a bit of a health and safety nightmare. One dreads to think what might happen if a singer fell off the ramp in one of them.
The singing is to be fair, decent. Cathrine Backhouse is Concepcion (yes, you read that right dear reader), the naughty wife who is most of the show, cunning and quick witted. Backhouse does a great job in keeping all the components of the opera in check, putting all the other characters in line. Peter Van Hulle is unrecognisable as Torquemada, the clock maker who is rarely seen, though he does get a few silly moments in the show. The voice easily sounds twice his age, perfect for the role and extra comedic elements are welcome. Matthew Buswell is Gomez, the bloated banker who seems to have a great time in his clock. A robust baritone, leading to a bass in voice, even his jacket is covered in money (a defining marker for every character, with symbols of their profession).
Antony Flaum is Gonzalve, the plumy poet, who adores Concepcion and hastily writes bad poetry for most of the hour. A swell tenor role, he is perhaps the only one in the cast who could resemble a Spaniard. Nicholas Morton is Ramiro, the lean, fit donkey boy who assists Concepcion in moving large clocks all around the shop and even into her bedroom (wink, wink). Also an important content of the whole opera, his voice is emerging and cutting, proven by the scores refusal to have the instruments harmonise with the singers. It’s a talented effort from the singers, though the staging is bland an uninspired.
A better effort should also be taken to promote the second half of the evening after the opera (a couple asked the usher if that was it for the night). Y Viva España was a fleeting section of Spanish and Spanish inspired music. The opening rendition of Ferdinand the Bull was a highlight, featuring Naomi Rump on violin, playing along the recitation with vigour. Other selections were from Lorca, Pablo Sorozàbal and Agustín Lara, though some extras from Carmen were memorable. I usually hate the opera by Bizet, but with such passionate singers, it was a rousing affair. Ending with the namesake pop song from a few decades ago, this was an infuriating ear worm that we had to leave on.
Mid Wales Opera are doing a brilliant job in bringing opera to so many new places around Wales and the borders, that they should be applauded. Who knows, maybe this Ravel oddity will win over new audiences.
A Spanish Hour & Y Viva España continues on tour.