L’heure espagnole, ****; L’enfant et les sortileges *****, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, East Sussex

 

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Ravel’s small, perfectly-formed oeuvre includes just two short operas, but the second, ‘L’enfant et les sortileges’, is a masterpiece.

Glyndebourne has imported Laurent Pelly’s Paris production of ‘L’heure espagnole’ and got him to create a new one for ‘L’enfant’, and the result is a sparkling evening. While the London Philharmonic under Kazushi Ono resonates for ‘L’heure’ with metronomes and everything else that can tick, the set is crammed with clocks with Pelly taking all possible cues from the libretto’s innuendo-stuffed insistence that the real subject-matter is cocks.

Horny Concepcion (Stephanie d’Oustrac) can’t wait to get her watch-maker husband (Francois Piolino) out of the shop so she can receive her poet-lover (Alek Shrader), and things get complicated when in comes a rich old roué (Paul Gay) who’s got it up for her as well.

Events are precipitated by the arrival of a beefy muletier (Elliot Madore) whose obedient humping of grandfather clocks with hidden human cargoes leads inexorably to him humping her as well. The whole thing is sung in a quintessentially idiomatic French manner, and the acting is farce at its purest, viz Shrader’s self-absorbed warblings while d’Outrac vainly waves her crotch at him, and Madore’s naively obliging innocence.

With ‘L’enfant et les sortileges’ we move into Lewis Carroll-land, as the mutinous Child (Khatouna Gadelia) trashes the drawing-room where he is supposed to be doing his homework. And if the set for ‘L’heure’ is over-busy, here everything in Barbara de Limburg’s set is giant-size, ready for the surreal animations in which the things the boy has tormented turn on him, with the cat whose tail he has pulled being the least of his accusers.

Ravel’s scintillating score gives visual cues with which Pelly plays like a conjuror, with the chorus first becoming lamenting figures from the Toile de Jouy wallpaper which the boy has torn, then turning into an animated forest where the groans of the tree whose bark he has cut suddenly melt his heart.

Four of the cast for ‘L’heure’ reappear here, and everyone sings their heart out in a brilliant piece of ensemble work. This opera lasts just 45 minutes, but I could have wished it three times as long, as Pelly’s treatment of Colette’s charmingly regretful morality tale works its delicate spell.

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