After producing Shostakovich's grisly and depressing Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk together in 2004, Royal Opera Music Director Antonio Pappano and director Richard Jones have reunited with set designer John Macfarlane, costume designer Nicky Gillibrand and lighting designer Mimi Jordan Sherin for a double bill of early twentieth-century comic operas by Ravel and Puccini.
Being a Jones production, however, the serious themes of lust and avarice dominate these presentations of L'Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi, respectively. For me, the former revealed a true gem, proving that Ravel had the measure of operatic writing; but both musically and dramatically, depth and darkness were pursued at the expense of wit and charm in the Puccini piece (though the applause for the more familiar Schicchi seemed to outweigh that for the relatively unknown Ravel work). Perhaps the production team ultimately felt that to programme two comedies consecutively was a mistake - after all, Gianni Schicchi was written as a light contrast to its highly tragic sister operas in Il trittico - and tried to recompense by probing the grittier observations on human nature in the second opera as a foil for the sexual shenanigans of the first.
L'Heure espagnole was a delight, however. The opera tells the story of Concepcion, who is the wife of Torquemada, the town clockmaker. Bored with her marriage, she seeks pleasure elsewhere. For one hour a week, her husband has to maintain the town clocks, leaving Concepcion free to receive Gonzalve, the poet. But on this occasion, Ramiro, a muleteer, has been told by Torquemada to wait in the shop, so Conception asks him to carry some clocks up and down the stairs for her so that she can have some time alone. Yet the plan is foiled when another of her admirers, the banker Don Inigo Gomez, arrives on the scene. The comedy intensifies as first Gonzalve and then Gomez hide in the clocks, while in the meantime Concepcion manages to have her way with the muscular Ramiro.
Jones ingeniously sets the work within a false proscenium, thereby confining the action in a small space and intensifying the sense of the heroine's moral suffocation. The wallpaper resembles the studs on a mattress while the drapes at the window contribute to the depiction of the shop as Concepcion's sexual playground and boudoir - a brilliant irony, given that her boring husband, who owns the shop, can give her little such pleasure. The characterisations are wonderfully vivid parodies of recognisable types - the lecherous overweight banker, the geeky poet who can't see the wood for the trees, the frustrated Mediterranean housewife - and the presence of so many clocks is a clever constant reminder of how little time Conception has in which to enact her charade.
The opera was blessed by an ideal cast of mainly British singers. Christine Rice gave energy to the part of Concepcion, conveying her growing agony at her situation, but what really impressed was her singing, characterised by secure intonation, strong projection and magnificent breath control. Christopher Maltman put in his strongest operatic performance to date as Ramiro, coping well with the physical demands of lifting grandfather clocks around whilst honing his lyrical baritone into a detailed account of his part; the highlight was his wistful little monologue, 'Voilą ce que j'appelle une femme charmante!'. The young French tenor Yann Beuron was the perfect Gonzalve - truly poetical in his delivery - while veterans Bonaventura Bottone (Torquemada) and Andrew Shore (Don Inigo Gomez) put in typically witty and vivid portrayals.
The hilarious production (which ends with a chorus of dancing girls appearing onstage to augment the final tableau's darkly cynical comment on life and lust) is matched by a wonderfully lucid reading of the score by Pappano. Metrical precision was matched by his typically generous reining-in of the orchestral forces to allow the singers to shine. My only small quibble is that the Spanish elements of the music could have been more pronounced sometimes: not for nothing is this opera called The Spanish Hour.
Given their declaration that the double bill was staged because Pappano and Jones desperately needed to do a comedy, it seemed somewhat strange to me that they chose to lard such a dark interpretation on Gianni Schicchi. It was a fascinating and worthwhile venture, but ultimately not one that convinced me. Certainly, there were some luminously funny moments. The death of Buoso Donati, over whose will his family spends the entire opera arguing, was amusingly done thanks to actor Bob Smith's lifeless collapse onto the bed; the hunt for the will included searching in the ceiling and under the floorboards; and it was hilarious when Gianni Schicchi pursued a member of the family and returned with the bust of Dante, who is invoked in the opera's closing stanza.
But I don't feel that the piece really suited being set in a drab, dimly-lit 1970s sitting room - complete with paper peeling off the walls, electric panel heater and half-exploded television - even if it was a stroke of genius to portray Buoso's grouchy brother-in-law as Ricky Tomlinson from The Royle Family (drolly brought to life by Jeremy White). Some of the other characters worked, too, such as Elena Zilio's feisty old handbag-thrashing Nella, but it was fatal to portray Gianni Schicchi himself as a smoking mechanic in a T-shirt and cap. We are supposed to believe that this is a learned man of literature and the law who outwits the town lawyer by masquerading as the dead Donati and modifies the latter's will in his own favour. Much as Bryn Terfel threw himself into the part and sang with a glorious lack of restraint - his cries of 'Vittoria, vittoria!' on conceiving the plan were thrilling - this interpretation of the piece didn't ring true.
The dramatic vision for the opera had also seeped into the orchestra pit, where Pappano proved surprisingly sluggish; sixty minutes for Gianni Schicchi is between five and ten minutes slower than most readings, and I really longed for the pace to quicken and the strings' timbre to lighten during the opening scene particularly. Normally, the family's cries of 'Povero Buoso' are exaggerated and side-splitting - they are, after all, sung over a busily ironic neo-classical theme in the orchestra. Here, Pappano made them genuinely sad, and although the clarinet and cor anglais impressed with their beautiful playing of the accompaniment, it seemed to me to miss the point: Gianni Schicchi is meant to be a highly frothy glass of operatic champagne.
Nevertheless, the cast was marvellous. Gwynne Howell stood out as Simone, the head of the family, for his Italianate tone and distinguished presence, while Saimir Pirgu promises to be one of the finest lyric tenors of the future after his striking Rinuccio. Pappano offered a masterclass in opera conducting during the opera's only famous aria, 'O mio babbino caro', shaping the phrases with elegance, and although Dina Kuznetsova had a minor blip in this aria, she never lost its poignancy and was a touching Lauretta. And the brilliant Marie McLaughlin and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts were luxury casting as La Ciesca and Gherardo.
There's much to be recommended here, and I appreciate what Pappano and Jones were trying to do in Schicchi. But for me, the more successful of the two operas was the Ravel, which revealed a neglected masterpiece that would be worth seeing again.