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Ravel's L'Heure espagnole - Richard Osborne

Arts | By Richard Osborne

Maurice Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole (1911) with (from left) Elgan Llŷr Thomas, Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, Catherine Backhouse and Ross Rambogin

Richard Osborne comes to grips with the summer festival season - or what remains of it - while he celebrates the online alternatives that work, the short but very sweet L'Heure espagnole.

‘It was a complicated and scattered scene, and one wasn’t one’s master.’

Henry James’s note to Sir Edward Elgar, apologising for his having missed the chance to speak with him at a fashionable London dinner party, came to mind as I pondered this year’s proposed festival season.

It’s one way of putting it – though, the more I look into the matter, the more I find myself in Rumsfeldian mode, muttering semi-coherently about known knowns, known unknowns and even unknown unknowns.

Current knowns include a number of festivals that have been either abandoned for a second successive year or, in the case of the likes of Chipping Campden, Newbury and Vale of Glamorgan, moved to September.

Aldeburgh in June is all but lost, and the York Early Music Festival (12th to 16th July) will be much reduced, despite being scheduled after the promised Day of National Liberation on 21st June.

By contrast, the Buxton Festival of Opera, Music and Literature (8th to 25th July) has a full programme ready to roll, once restrictions are removed. And even now, the Brighton Festival, the largest and most culturally diverse of all the English arts festivals, is soldiering on, with an elaborate programme being delivered alfresco and online from 1st to 16th May, and then personally distanced in the usual venues until 31st May.

Frontline opera festivals such as Glyndebourne, Garsington and Grange Park Opera are currently rehearsing (under draconian government guidelines), in the belief that they will be allowed to open after 17th May, albeit with audiences reduced by around 50 per cent.

Let’s hope they bring it off. It helps if, like London’s Opera Holland Park, you have no walls to your auditorium. Thinking along those lines, Longborough (1st June to 3rd August) has taken the precaution of erecting a well-ventilated circus tent in an adjacent field (no Pagliacci, alas, or revival of Peter Brook’s La Tragédie de Carmen) while Nevill Holt Opera (4th to 10th and 19th to 25th August) plans to raise a Le Corbusier-like, open-air pavilion deep in John Clare country.

Whatever happens to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the International Festival (6th to 29th August) will be returning, live and in person, in an array of specially created venues. The full programme of music, theatre and dance will released on 2nd June.

No festival, as far as I know, has announced that it’s moving online, a piece of PR-speak nicely translated by David Mitchell on Radio 4 as meaning ‘We’ve cancelled the festival and something else is happening online.’

Nonetheless, it’s curious how thoroughly the COVID crisis appears to have dispelled the old mistrust of filmed music-making, for all that it remains a problematic medium – the eye dethroning the ear when close-up cameras are at work, opera physically diminished and emotionally tamed when removed from the bear pit that is its natural habitat.

There are exceptions, or course, a couple of which Wasfi Kani’s Grange Park Opera has recently identified. Remaking Britten’s made-for-television opera Owen Wingrave was a nice idea. But it’s the company’s film of Maurice Ravel’s ribald and witty one-act jest L’Heure espagnole that’s the real joy (grangeparkopera.org − free to view; donations welcome).

The title refers to the hour each week when a much-cuckolded Catalan clockmaker sallies forth to regulate the municipal timepieces. A muleteer appears with an antique watch and is told to wait in the shop, much to the discomfiture of the clockmaker’s wife and the young poet and elderly banker with whom assignations have been made. A Feydeau-like game of hide-and-seek ensues, with the menfolk boxing and coxing backstairs, downstairs and in the bellies of longcase clocks.

Updated to 2021, with the sexually compliant muleteer recast as a well-appointed UPS delivery driver, the opera was filmed in Howard Walwyn’s Fine Antique Clocks in London’s Kensington Church Street, a stage set that even the most gifted of theatre designers could only dream of replicating.

Ravel set Franc-Nohain’s comédie-bouffe pretty well as it stood, wiring up text and music much as a tiara-maker wires up his diamonds and precious stones. Franc-Nohain’s text is delivered with flair and immediacy by a mainly young cast, memorably led by Catherine Backhouse as the wife and Ross Ramgobin as the muleteer. Ravel mostly composed at (and for) the piano, which explains why the piano reduction of the orchestral score, vividly realised here by Chris Hopkins, is so effective.

Stephen Medcalf’s direction, brilliantly filmed and edited for the small screen, is a delight, from the opening shots of Walwyn’s shop and its tintinnabulating clocks to the concluding quintet in which we’re advised, ‘Where lovers are concerned, it’s only the effective one who really counts.’

Game, set and match, then, to the man from UPS.

This story was from May 2021 issue. Subscribe Now