Sunday, July 10, 2016

From Farce to Fantasy: Ravel at La Scala

Ravel’s L’heure espagnole and L’enfant et les sortilèges
Teatro alla Scala, Milan
June 3, 2016

What's a desperate housewife to do?
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
It was a rainy late spring evening in Milan that found us at La Scala for a double feature of little-performed one-act operas by Maurice Ravel. The program was virgin territory for both of us, so we arrived with a mindset of pure discovery. Had it not been for the warm solicitations of an acquaintance not to miss it, we would have skipped this one. Instead, we took the Ravel plunge and were happily surprised.

Seize the day, says the true poet to her lover.
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
The first of the two, L’heure espagnole, was a one-act opera comique, a Boccaccio-esque romp into the life of a desperate housewife, along the lines of Peronella and her lover Giannello (Decameron, Day VII, Story 2). Only this time in the place of her famous tub we find twin grandfather clocks endowed with human-sized hiding places in their capacious chests. The piece is a frivolous and fun divertissement, all about an insatiable woman trying to lure into her bed a lover or two (actually, three!) during the one hour her husband is out on business.

The production directed by Laurent Pelly that premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2015 updates the action of the opera from the 18th century to the present day. The costumes have a distinctly 1970s feeling, but the modern washing machine placed front and center in the active bottega of a set brings it squarely into the last couple of decades, at least. The staging is simple yet effective: a saturated store that clearly doubles as living quarters for the clockmaker and his wife is developed into two levels, with a staircase that leads into the wife’s bedroom and the related heavy traffic of lovers being carried back and forth while hiding in grandfather clocks. The very cluttered sets (clocks, next to mock bulls next to laundry baskets, next to car parts) provided a lively, messy yet joyful backdrop for the comic action and, at times, even seemed to mirror the multi-layered effects of the complex score.

But the narcissist always has the spotlight on himself
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
Mezzo Stéphanie D’Oustrac sang the role of the lonely wife, Concepcion, who seems to have a little too much time on her hands. She played her character’s ennui with a real working class nonchalance and rendered her desperate craving for sexual fulfillment with gusto. When her husband the clockmaker, Torquemada, played here by tenor Jean-Paul Fouchécourt in a mad scientist’s white wig and nerdy lab coat, is called away on his regular mission to adjust the municipal clocks, the pussycat is free to play. This is the moment in which she habitually receives her poet-lover, but today an unforeseeable visitor has happened upon the shop: Ramiro the mule driver who is looking to get his watch fixed. He is a hulking hunk of a man sung by baritone Jean-Luc Ballestra in a form fitting t-shirt. The watchmaker has invited him to wait until he returns. How inconvenient! How is she to get any satisfaction with this unwanted guest hanging around. But like any desperate housewife: where there’s a will, there’s a way, particularly if a hot man with bulging muscles is around.

The ennui of a woman alone, while her men play hide-and-seek
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
The lover whom she awaits it turns out is none other than Gonzalve, sung by tenor Yann Beuron. In bellbottomed pants and mutton chops, he is an egomaniac of a lyric poet who is more consumed with the poetic idea of being in love than ever turning his thoughts to consummating the actual act of love that Concepcion is hungry for. She pines for him, gropes for him, all but throws herself at him. All he can do is come up with lines for sonnets, ballads and songs that only serve to keep her at bay. At one point she even appeals to him twice saying, “Ne perdons pas, à de vaines paroles, / L’heure qui s’envole, / Et qu’il faut cuellir.” In short: cut the crap and seize the day! The real Horace in this play is not the poet but, as it turns out, is none other than the sexually frustrated housewife. The satire on the impotence of literati is acutely felt and evokes a series of laughs as the ongoing gag plays out.

The superhuman strength of the muleteer
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
We have yet to meet one final caricature. The fourth of our ridiculous male figures is Don Iñigo Gomez, sung by bass-baritone Vincent Le Texier, a randy financier playing hooky from the bank. He is yet another even more pathetic pretender to the affections of the highly sought after watchmaker’s wife. She must have something to recommend her in order to justify the attentions of so many men. And so the delicate dance steps up a notch. Concepcion spends the rest of the opera playing duck and dodge as she attempts to get what she wants from this steady stream of suitors during the short heure her husband is away.

So much more than a love triangle
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
The poet and the banker alternately hide in the two grandfather clocks that Ramiro carries back and forth from the showroom to Concepcion’s bedroom, showing off his masculine strength as he effortlessly carries clocks containing grown men up and down the stairs. After all of these shenanigans, Concepcion comes out chaste and true to her husband who even manages to turn the amorous entrelacement into a sale, much like Peronella's poor lover in Decameron VII, 2. Both Don Iñigo and Gonzalve are persuaded to purchase their respective grandfather clock hiding spots. It’s slapstick silliness that comes full circle and it amounts to a level of Boccaccian revelry that I am just not accustomed to seeing on the opera stage and for that it was a heck of a lot of fun to watch.

Pelly's oversaturated sets
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
The vocal writing here is all sung through, mostly declamatory, to add to the humdrum lack meaning in the lives of these self-consciously caricaturesque characters. The only truly lyrical bits are those of the poet-lover but there again, lyricism is used as a parody of artists being too self-absorbed by their art to really live life. Another parodic moment is when Concepcion sings her seduction aria in the finale, which amounts to a mocking riff on the melodic line of Bizet’s Habanera, in a banalization of the seductive gypsy of Carmen.

In Spain, it would seem, time works a little differently than it does elsewhere. It can move slowly. It can open up – quite literally as men emerge from clocks. Love awaits within its gates, and it’s all good fun.

* * *

The Enfant at his studies
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
The second opera of the evening, L’enfant et les sortilèges, a fantasie lyrique in two parts, was an awe-inspiring tour de force. Also directed by Laurent Pelly, however it could not have been more different from the piece that came before. Oneiric, fantastic and beautifully enchanting, this production brought to life the Ravel work with intelligence and excellent stagecraft. With a fairy tale driven libretto by the great French polymath Colette, Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges brings together a whole slew of great narrative, theatrical and musical ideas all in the course of just fifty-five minutes.

A child's perspective on an adult world
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
The opera opens with one of its highly memorable scenes. The Enfant, sung by a brilliantly infantilized mezzo Marianne Crebassa, is sitting on a larger than life chair on which he is perched on a stack of larger than life books in order to reach his homework on an enormous larger than life table. The curtain opens on him scribbling away there at this notebook, though he seems none too happy. His conflict with the authoritarian iron fist of the adult world becomes evident when his mother makes her way out in the form of Delphine Haidan on a contraption that makes her seem larger than life too, like the table. She too is none too happy that he isn’t concentrating. She scolds him and makes all the threatening gestures of a clueless parent who is completely out of touch with their children.

The furniture comes to live give a scolding
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
After his mother is wheeled away on her contraption, it is time to rebel. The boy tears up his school work, jettisons the tea pot, cups and saucers across the room, terrorizes the cat and defaces the wallpaper before crashing out on an armchair to take a nap. Once he is asleep the real action of the opera begins. The morality tale takes over and all of the objects and animals on which he has wreaked havoc all of his young life suddenly come to life to teach him one of life’s most precious lessons: we must be mindful of the world in which we live. We have to be respectful and care for all of God’s creation both animate and inanimate. A series of characters emerge like vivid dreams from the darkness of the stage: a thundering clock, the fire, a storybook princess, various duets (between teapot and teacup, armchair and sofa, boy cat and girl cat) and ensembles (a class of math students, baroque wallpaper characters, the garden’s plants and animals). Each vignette has a different tone, from ironic to pity-inducing, to enraged, to gently scolding, to dramatic storytelling. The overall effect is of a moral phantasmagoria, in a whirlwind of dreamy fantastic fun, very playfully done.

Figures emerge from the wallpaper to teach a lesson
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
The music oscillates beautifully between traditional narrative operatic passages and more oneiric purely fantasy bits. One of the more traditional narrative moments in the score occurs in the brief interlude in which the shepherds and the shepherdesses descended from the tear in the baroque wallpaper singing bars of a rarefied rococo music, all oboe, flute and tamburello. But, we also have the fire poking out of the fireplace, in a quasi-Queen-of-the-Night coloratura fashion, harshly threatening the child. In the garden, on the other hand, the various insects and frogs engage in an extended and very surreal call and response that evoked something of a mating ritual. 

Sexuality oozed from much of the action
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
In fact, much of this staging was rather explicitly sexual. The procreative call of nature was often boiling right at the surface of the choreography. Very little was necessarily family friendly, despite its childish appeal. This was an unabashedly Freudian universe. Many of the directorial decisions were firmly rooted in the music and so I would even suggest that some of this, let’s call it, Dionysian element is most certainly also in the score. Ravel is no fool. The two operas of this double feature cannot be more different from another, the unifying trait being really only the wondrous complexity of the Ravel score, in both instances masterfully executed under the baton of maestro Marc Minkowski.

The forest comes to life in the finale and the Enfant is redeemed
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala
This Pelly production of L’Enfant first premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2012 and it was one of the most inventive works I’ve ever seen on the stage of a major opera house.  Ravel’s fantasy world was imaginatively executed. The set and costumes were immaculate in their simple attention to detail in the portrayal of a child’s perspective on the adult world that surrounds him. And the stage direction was brilliantly conceived and executed. The timing of all of the transitions and sequence of fantastic scenes unfolded impeccably. I found myself on the edge of my seat wondering what was going to come next. It was truly next level theater making. Some said that it is the best thing that La Scala did this year. I would put it right up there with this season’s big opener, Verdi’s Giovanna D’Arco, which is without a doubt another personal favorite. But this production of Ravel ranks right up there. And to think that we almost did not go writing it off like a kids’ show!

– Lui & Lei

The Queen of the Fire flashes out of the hearth
Photo credit: Teatro alla Scala

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