Royal Academy Opera 2021 Review: L’heure espagnole/Gianni Schicchi

A deft and witty double bill showcases a host of new talent

By Benjamin Poore
(Credit: © Craig Fuller)

When it comes to sex and death, timing is everything. The Royal Academy of Music is one of Europe’s leading conservatoires, with a renowned opera program for young singers whose stars are in the ascendant. This autumn they offered – across two casts – a double bill of Maurice Ravel’s mischievous farce “L’heure Espagnole” and Giacomo Puccini’s story of probate chicanery “Gianni Schicchi,” both directed by Stephen Barlow. As he notes in the program, what connects both pieces is that time is running out for the parties concerned: Concepción struggles to find a moment for an assignation; Buoso’s grasping family want to change his will before his fortune is given to a Friary.

Ravel’s Work

Barlow’s production of both pieces puts a musical conceit at their centers – apt for a conservatory performance, with lots of scope for musical in-jokes that suited this audience down to the ground. “L’heure Espagnole” takes place not in a clockmaker’s but a music shop, timepieces replaced by double bass cases, hefted to the bedroom and back by Ramiro, the buff, guileless delivery guy. Tempo markings adorn the set – Ramiro’s stopped clock – a violin – is marked ‘Sans mouvt.’; it is restored by Torquemada to ‘A tempo’ by the end. Concepción is corseted by a pair of string instrument F-holes (a naughty joke, perhaps). The piece opens with a smart coup de théâtre on this theme: the curtain rises to a slew of metronomes, ticking away, and winding down (an allusion, surely, to György Ligeti‘s “Poème Symphonique” for 100 metronomes).

The musical setting is witty enough. Musical time makes an especially piquant contrast to the regulated clock time of work. Music has the capacity to stretch out a moment, to evoke infinity, or to make hours pass in what feels like minutes. That Ravel’s opera was born in the period that saw Bergson philosophize about the nature of duration and Einstein theorize relativity is surely no coincidence.

Concepción, sung by the impatiently frisky Julia Portela Piñón, has to run her love affairs like clockwork, in a stolen hour whilst Torquemada is out winding the municipal timepieces. Her potential lovers don’t help. She finds satisfaction neither in the poet Gonzalve (whose longing for poetic posterity rob from him the physical pleasures of the present), nor in the buffoonish banker Don Iñigo Gomez, whose loquacious self-aggrandizement is rendered with plummy indulgence from bass Michael Ronan. In the end she chooses the delivery guy – rugged, handsome, and “he doesn’t talk crap”.

A strong cast helped realize Barlow’s dreamlike vision. Barlow’s direction captured many of the slapstick beats, though one gets the sense both this and Schicchi could’ve done with a few more performances to really let these young singing actors relax into the blocking and improvise a little around it. Fussy Torquemada was sung with nerdy flair by Samuel Kibble.

Julia Portela Piñón’s Concepción was smoky and intense, with a vivid physicality and powerful sense of pent-up energies (her frustration with Gonzalve’s artistic rather than amorous priorities was especially funny) – her voice had great sparkle and flourish in the more virtuosic sequences. Magnus Walker, a bookish Gonzalve, was deliciously extravagant, and mostly unfazed by Ravel’s vertiginous and silly writing for the part. Jack Lee’s Ramiro, munching absent-mindedly on a bag of crisps, showcased some gleaming top notes. His monologue on the mysteries of women was charmingly guileless, especially as he ends up getting the girl.

Puccini’s Comedy 

A Gianni Schicchi without a bed for poor dead Buoso? Perish the thought. But Barlow’s recasts him as a composer, slumped over the piano, which gives an artistic gloss to the questions of legacies unpacked in the opera. It’s a great choice for a conservatory company – as a true ensemble piece with plenty of vocal spectacle, there’s something for all the cast to get their teeth into. Characterful sets and costumes placed the work somewhere in the 1970s – a family squabble à la “Dynasty” set to rambunctious music.

Ensembles were the most thrilling – the trio as Schicchi is dressed in dead Buoso’s clothes shone with conspiratorial energy. Physical comedy stood out. Tom O’Kelly is presumably a fine singer, but put in a dead straight performance as Buoso’s corpse; Julia Portela Piñón’s Zita careened about in a wheelchair with remarkable dexterity.

The bit parts were all well-drawn and acted with aplomb: Benjamin Gauthier’s drunken Betto, Cassandra White’s waspish Nella, and traffic cop Marco, sung stoutly by Vitor Brispo. Duncan Stenhouse also impressed in his double turn as Buoso’s blustering, pretentious doctor and pernickety notary. Mezzo Lauren Macleod nonchalantly flipped the pages of Italian Vogue as La Ciesca until the bad news about Buoso’s will materialized, in velvety effulgent voice throughout, and offering a top C that would please any soprano. Across the board singing was garden-fresh and beaming, as one might expect from young voices ready to jump out at the audience.

Jacob Phillips’ Schicchi was at the center of the show, and demonstrated impeccable technique alongside impressive dramatic range. He’s slick and oily, with the hint of the playboy, and does Buoso’s voice to hilarious pantomime effect. He felt ruthless enough to defraud the dead, and charming enough to plead extenuating circumstances in the coda, bust of Dante in hand – a sharply-drawn and impressively crafted portrait.

We’re used to hearing “O mio babbino caro” as a standalone piece, shorn of character and dripping with, well, a sort of mature self-conscious beauty – so it was a delight to hear it sung more girlishly, with an impetuous lyricism, by a pleading teenager in Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada. She found her boyish match in the tightly wound tenor of Maximillian Lawrie, singing Rinuccio, with whom she shared a rapt final duet, bathed in Jake Wiltshire’s soft golden light.

Lawrie is a powerful singer, full of ardor and daring in the upper reaches, but could probably do with relaxing a little to eke out a little more sweetness. Professionals through and through, the pair of them: soldiering on bravely as a metronome on Buoso’s piano was accidentally set off during their duet, ticking away obliviously. (It could’ve been an immersion-shattering moment of dramatic irony, but research after the show revealed this not to be the case.)

The Royal Academy Sinfonia supported from the pit, under the energetic and insightful baton of Alice Farnham, who steered these young musicians through two immensely taxing scores with clarity and care. Ravel’s sound world is seldom summoned without blemishes, even from professionals working at the top of their game. Here the dreamy, glassy effects from combined strings and winds was thoroughly convincing. Fruity, garrulous bassoon solos stood out especially, alongside sparkling celeste and woozy accordion.

Tempi there were more languorous and spacious – a fitting contrast to the regimentation of the metronome. In “Schicchi” there was plenty of brilliance, Farnham and her musicians marking the sharp edges in Puccini’s most Stavinskian of scores. A smaller string section meant, for both pieces, less lushness and more obvious blemishes – but there was still plenty of fine, glossy detailing on show and rhythmic zest in the Puccini.



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