Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
L’Heure espagnole - opera in one act (1904) [49:20]
Concepcion - Suzanne Danco (mezzo)
Gonzalve - Jean Giraudeau (tenor)
Torquemada - Michel Hamel (tenor)
Ramiro - John Cameron (baritone)
Don Inigo Gomez - André Vessières (bass)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Bruno Maderna
rec. 15 November 1960, BBC Maida Vale Studios, London. mono
TESTAMENT SBT1511 [49:20]

I came to this latest release from Testament with great expectations, having enjoyed their L'Enfant et les Sortilèges with Ernest Bour (SBT 1044). Ravel’s first opera, the one-act L'heure espagnole is set to a libretto by Franc-Nohain, based on his play of the same name, which was first performed at the Théâtre de l'Odéon in October 1904. Ravel was captivated by it, and worked quickly on his opera, completing the vocal score in October 1907. This he submitted to Albert Carré, director of the Opéra-Comique. Considering it too risqué Carré initially refused to take it on, however the composer’s perseverance won out in the end and he capitulated. It received its premiere in May 1911 at the Opéra-Comique. The potent mix of a libretto leavened with erotic double-entendres, and Ravel’s exotic scoring, drew the opprobrium of both audience and critics, and Carré was thus vindicated. The Great War temporarily put an end to further performances but in 1919 Covent Garden took it up, and from there it went on to do the rounds of Brussels, Milan and Berlin. It was an unmitigated success.

L’Heure espagnole made its first appearance on record in 1929 under the auspices of Georges Truc, closely supervised by the composer himself. René Leibowitz and André Cluytens later committed their interpretations to disc. In the early nineteen-fifties Ernest Ansermet made his famous inscription in the Victoria Hall, Geneva, with Suzanne Danco in the role of Concepcion.
On 15 November 1960, Bruno Maderna took the opera into the Maida Vale Studios, London for this BBC recording. The Italian conductor and composer had a particular affinity with Ravel’s music, being acutely sensitive to its subtle nuances and colouristic palette. He cast the wonderful Suzanne Danco in the role of Concepcion, considering her lyric soprano ideally suited to the part. The recording has previously surfaced in pirated incarnations, but this is the first time it has been edited from pristine master tapes. Stradivarius released the performance (STR 10062) in 1998 and, strangely, gave the recording venue as the Royal Festival Hall.

The plot has all the hallmarks of a Brian Rix farce, though set in eighteenth century Toledo, Spain. Briefly, Torquemada, a clockmaker, goes out to attend to the municipal clocks. His wife Concepcion sees this as an opportunity for amorous pursuits with her lover Gonzalve, a poet, and the wealthy banker Don Inigo, who has schemed Torquemada’s absence by arranging this municipal job. The competing lovers hide in grandfather clocks, whilst a passing muleteer, Ramiro, who has called in to have his watch repaired, is given the task of carrying the clocks, containing their human cargo, to Concepcion’s bedroom. The upshot of all the goings-on is that she eventually falls for the handsome and physically strong muleteer. Torquemada returns and the singers partake in a final quintet.

I’m particularly drawn to Maderna’s attention to detail and the way he sensitively handles the score, highlighting its richly colourful orchestral textures. He maintains a comfortable pacing throughout. His soloists all give stylish and idiomatic performances, with Danco indisputably the star of the show. Her lush, burnished mezzo projects well and her characterization of the coquettish and sex-starved clockmaker’s wife secures favourable results. I would also single out André Vessières, Concepcion’s elderly suitor. His rich bass suitably conveys the portly and pompous banker. Jean Giraudeau, as Gonzalve the poet, has a pleasing light tenor voice. John Cameron and Michel Hamel also give assured performances. I was interested to discover that Hamel and Vessières, as well as Danco, appear in the Ansermet recording.

The mono sound does not detract in any way from this captivating performance, and the brilliance and allure of Ravel’s orchestration makes its presence felt. A PDF of the libretto can be downloaded from the label’s website.

Testament have given this accomplished recording a new lease of life. My initial expectations have most certainly been fulfilled.

Stephen Greenbank

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