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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
L’Heure espagnole – Opera in One Act (1911) [48:30]
Don Quichotte à Dulcinée – Three Songs (1934) [7:12]
Isabelle Druet (mezzo) – Concepción; Marc Barrard (baritone) – Ramiro; Frédéric Antoun (tenor) – Gonzalve; Nicolas Courjal (bass) – Don Iñigo Gómez; Luca Lombardo (tenor) – Torquemada; François Le Roux (baritone) – Don Quichotte
Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
rec. Auditorium Maurice-Ravel, Lyon, 22–26 January 2013 (L’Heure espagnole), 18–22 September 2013 (Don Quichotte à Dulcinée)
NAXOS 8.660337 [55:42]

L’Heure espagnole must be one of the greatest one-act operas ever penned. Ravel stated that, through it, he wanted ‘to breathe new life into the Italian opera buffa’; and most hearers will agree that he was successful in doing so, having grafted his unique gifts of refinement, melody, orchestration and wit onto what is in essence a conventionally farcical ‘sitcom’ plot. The action centres on the clockmaker’s wife Concepción, whose favourite time of the week is Thursday morning, when her husband Torquemada leaves his premises to check and repair the various clocks of the municipality of Toledo. This gives her free rein to entertain gentleman visitors such as the romantic poet Gonzalve and the pompous, corpulent banker Don Iñigo Gómez. On this particular Thursday, however, her plans are thwarted by the muleteer Ramiro, who has brought in his treasured watch to be repaired, but must await Torquemada’s return before it is attended to. So when her admirers start to arrive, Concepción gets the obliging Ramiro out of the way by asking him to carry various grandfather clocks upstairs and downstairs – something he does with consummate ease even when (to cut a long story short) the clocks in question contain first Gonzalve and then the not exactly featherweight Don Iñigo. In due course Concepción decides that Ramiro’s portering skills, spectacular biceps and refreshing taciturnity render him a more attractive proposition than her verbose and self-absorbed ‘regulars’; and, with the latter suitably confined in their respective clocks, she eventually asks Ramiro to go upstairs for one last time, this time however ‘sans horloge’. The moral drawn in the work’s concluding quintet is that only a lover who is ‘efficace’, like the muleteer, is ever truly successful.

Leonard Slatkin’s new budget-price recording of the opera features a stand-out performance by Isabelle Druet as Concepción. Her soprano-like mezzo is ideal for the role, and she conveys the character’s combination of frustration, boredom, manipulative charm and out-and-out sex appeal quite brilliantly. I also very much liked the performances of the cast’s two other younger singers. Frédéric Antoun’s headily beautiful tenor is used to witty effect in his portrayal of Gonzalve, who emerges as a parody not just of a poet but also of an opera singer: I was at times reminded by him not just of Lensky but also, however bizarrely, of Alfred in Die Fledermaus. Meanwhile Nicolas Courjal’s Don Iñigo combines some impressively dark bass tone with a keen awareness of the rhythms and shape of the text – all-important in this of all operas, given that, as Philip Weller reminds us in his excellent notes, Ravel’s ‘treatment of the words is a kind of musically and poetically heightened speech’. The performance is very well controlled by Slatkin, who knows his Ravel inside-out and conducts with style, taste, and a particularly good ear for the score’s many Spanish inflections.

Like so many works by Ravel, L’Heure espagnole seems always to have been, as they say, ‘lucky on disc’; one suspects that composers like him actually made their own luck in this regard, thanks to their impeccable and hence indestructible craftsmanship. Some notable versions, such as those under André Cluytens, Ernest Ansermet and Peter Maag, are difficult to come by and/or have problematically dated sound. Neither of these problems applies to Lorin Maazel’s famous performance from the early 1960s, however, which is still to be had as a ‘DG Original’: E4497692 – coupled in a two-disc set with L’Enfant et les sortilèges, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio espagnol and Stravinsky’s Chant du rossignol, all in brilliant performances from Maazel’s earliest years in the recording studio. Ultimately I don’t think that Slatkin can quite compete with Maazel: the latter’s speeds tend to be that crucial bit quicker, he conducts with real acuity and panache, and he has the superior orchestra; the wind sound of the ORTF Orchestra, especially that of the bassoon and horn, is characterful and memorable. Moreover Maazel’s cast, whilst hardly offering the ultimate in vocal allure — Gabriel Bacquier and José van Dam arguably excepted — offer something of a master-class in acting with the voice, so that the work becomes still more the vivacious conversation piece it needs to be.

Slatkin’s cause is by no means helped by his coupling, the three songs Ravel composed for G. W. Pabst’s 1933 film adaptation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which starred none other than the Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin. These songs, which were to be Ravel’s very last works, were not in fact used in the film, alternatives by, of all people, Jacques Ibert being preferred. They are nevertheless very fine, showing – to quote Weller – how the Don manages somehow to preserve his dignity ‘even as he is overcome by his emotion’. At seven minutes they do not constitute a very generous coupling; but the real problem is the soloist, François Le Roux, an estimable and supremely versatile baritone, whose voice now, however, is little more than a shadow of its former self. Given, not least, that they were originally conceived for Chaliapin, one can’t help wishing, however heretically, that the opportunity to perform the songs had been given instead to Nicolas Courjal.

Overall, then, this issue has its flaws; and it certainly faces powerful competition. On the other hand, it is thoroughly enjoyable, the sound is good, the price is right, and Isabelle Druet in particular is well worth hearing.

Nigel Harris



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