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Ravel at Glyndebourne: the double-dip opera-session

Everyone knows that here in England, we’re wallowing in a double-dip recession. The longest for decades they say. But there was light on the horizon this week – apparently we’re not in the recession as deep as forecasters had thought. Well hey ho, that’s a positive surely? Things are looking up! And what better way to celebrate this sprightly news than to head along to where all the rich people go – to Glyndebourne Opera, home of the landed gentry, the well-coined and lovers of lavishness aplenty, for none other than a double-dip opera-session! (called such because 1. this is my second visit of the year – I know, lucky me – and 2. we got to see not one, but two operas by Ravel). I know, Ravel – hardly your Puccini or Mozart. But my, what a feast beheld us when we sat down to watch the melodic opus of this operatic genius.

L’heure espagnole

Once we had enjoyed our customary fill of afternoon tea and a stroll around the verdant grounds of Glyndebourne (disappointed however that for the price of half a small car, tea was presented as a Twinings tea bag. Where was my loose leaf? My high tea silver?) we entered the lavishly contemporary wood-clad opera auditorium to watch the first of the Ravel double-bill. L’heure espagnole thrilled from the moment the curtain unfurled horizontally across the stage, revealing behind it a clockworker’s shop with a wall filled to the brim of different sized clocks and other nicknacks, all wonderfully animated so that, as the curtain rolled back to reveal them, the clocks would begin spinning, the skeleton started dancing and dusters started revolving, all on their own, like some kind of enchanted wonderland.

What followed was a perfectly choreographed commedia dell’arte, a typical sexual farce as a clockmaker’s wife attempted (almost) in vain, to make the most of her husband’s one hour’s absence to throughly flirt her way through the town’s male population. But as she found one man too poetically verbose and romantically flighty, she found the robust attentions of another too overbearing. Trying to escape one and have her way with the other, a hilarious scene unfurled as the licentious Concepcion, brilliantly played by Stéphanie d’Oustrac, tried to hide one lover from another, generally speaking in cuckoo clocks, while all the time courting the attention of yet another suitor who at the start of the opera bemoaned his lack of touch with women, but by the end had bedded Concepcion, just in time before her husband arrived back.

My favourite section was the final scene, when back on stage, all five singers threw themselves into a brilliantly mastered harmony, sung in tandem, but each one of them following a differently intricate melody. I also appreciated the devilish symbolism which ran throughout the opera, as the libretto alluded to the winding up of clocks as a symbol of sexual frustration, only for the cuckoo to pop out energetically as a symbol of – well, I’ll let your imagination finish that sentence off. A few dangling pendulums and several shrill cuckoos later, and the opera ended just after an hour of comical gold with some excellent singing and a beautifully played score which evoked the sensual atmosphere of middle-Spain (the opera is set in Toledo) and the ravishing rhythms and visceral textures of that region. What this opera lacked in memorable harmonies, it gained in actorly skill and superb staging – one forgets that opera singers have to act just as well as they sing, and in L’heure espagnole, they were pretty spot-on on both fronts.

 L’enfant et les sortilèges

If the evening had ended there, we would have walked away highly satisfied. But after the customary 90 minute interval break, we returned for the second of the Ravel operas and were frankly so stunned by the creative genius of the spectacle which started to play out on the stage before us that my mouth hung open, my partner’s eyes started blinking in disbelief, and for all of us, a suspicion ensued that either the wine during dinner had been sensationally strong or the director’s staging was fantastically good, such was the brilliance and utter incredulity of the surreal spectacular which was embodied by the second opera: L’enfant et les sortilèges. 

From the moment it begun, you just new this was going to be good. A black stage, a boy dwarfed by a huge oversized table and chair, and his mother, huge, 15 ft tall, gliding in on the stilts or platform or whatever was under her huge giant dress like a massive mechanical doll. As the child refused to do his homework and his mother chastised him, a huge tantrum begun, as he ripped the pages from his book, hurled his cup and tea pot off the table, and tearing a huge patch off the wallpaper. But somewhere beneath this tantrum, a guilty conscious began to play on his mind, and what followed was a jaw-droppingly wondrous spectacle, as we were sucked into the child’s imagination (or was it his reality?) as all the objects he had damaged started to come to life, chastising him for his bad behaviour.

It sounds almost inane but it looked stunning. We had the fortune of seats bang in the centre of the stalls where we benefited from the full impact of the staging. Against a pitch black background, the effect of a talking clockface spinning across the stage, and giant fauteuil and bergère arm chairs emerging with singers crawling out of them, artfully disguised in the same fabric, moving back and forth, getting bigger and smaller, was like 3D, like we too were being swallowed up into the dream. What followed was scene after scene of imaginative brilliance. The Toile de Jouy wallpaper, which the boy had ripped, came to life, as the traditionally blue shepherds bemoaned a scene being ripped from their paper, a shocking interruption of their bucolic tranquility. Also coming to life was the princess from the story whose pages had been torn out, lamenting the fact that with torn out pages, her story now would never be told. Anthropomorphised too were the teapot and the cup and saucer, the latter singing a hilarious chinese ballad while the former dipped his spout provocatively over the rim of her cup. But by far the most stunning scene was the climax of the piece – a forest made from singers dressed in huge tree-sized branches, rustling and moving like real humanoid trees, as a huge chorus of singers dressed as bugs, glowworms with lit up tails, birds and bats flying through the air, and a squirrel, flitted and floated across the scene, each bemoaning, one with great poignancy, the times the boy had caught them in a cage, killed their partner, tortured their friends, all in the garden at the bottom of his house.

However all’s well that ends well, and when the boy, on instinct, rapped a bandage around the hurt ankle of a little bird, the rest of the creatures realised that he was not cruel after all, and recognising his cries, helped him find his mummy, into whose arms he was to return as the curtain came down.

The applause was rapturous, the reception confirmation of the brilliance of this opera. The papers are raving about it, the public’s reaction on the Glyndebourne website calls it the best staged opera in some 50 years. I cannot disagree. The opera was incredible. I was literally awestruck. It was the most stunning thing I have ever seen on stage. A vivid and captivating wonderland which thrilled, seduced, and filled ever member of the audience with awestruck and childlike stupefaction and astonishment. Congratulations Glyndebourne.

The Glyndebourne website is currently showing a video feed of the opera. Check it out here.

All pictures are the copyright of Simon Annand.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow, sounds like a truly magical evening.

    August 25, 2012
  2. Wow! What a wonderful production. Thank you for sharing the link.

    August 25, 2012

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