Ravel’s “L’Heure Espagnole” Gets Sparkling New Reading

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RAVEL: L’Heure Espagnole / Gaëlle Arquez, mezzo-soprano (Concepción); Julien Behr, tenor (Gonzalve); Mathias Vidal, tenor (Torquemada); Alexandre Duhamel, baritone (Ramiro); Lionel Lhote, baritone (Don Iñigo Gomez); Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Asher Fisch, conductor / CHABRIER: España / Münchner Rundfunkorchester; Asher Fisch, conductor / BR Klassik 900317 (live: Munich, April 24, 2016)

Maurice Ravel’s one-act comedy L’Heure Espagnole hasn’t had a lot of recordings—I count only six in the current catalog, the most famous of which are Ernest Ansermet’s venerable performance with Suzanne Danco as Concepcion and Lorin Maazel’s supposedly classic account with Jane Berbié, Michel Sénechal and Gabriel Bacquier—thus this entry is very welcome. For those unfamiliar with it, the opera is set in 18th century Toledo, Spain, where the clockmaker Torquemada, on his rounds to tend to the municipal clocks, is cheated on by his rather randy wife Concepcion. The gag is that two of her lovers (Gonsalve and Don Iñigo Gomez) are hiding in large cabinet-sized clocks, and she ends up making love with the poor muleteer Ramiro who had just stopped by to have his watch fixed before Torquemada went out on his rounds.

Listening to this performance after hearing excerpts of the Maazel recording shows an entirely different style. Whereas Maazel’s conducting is all smoothness and elegance, Asher Fisch emphasizes the music’s rhythmic elements, bringing out far more detail in the orchestration and much livelier interpretations out of his singers. Of course, the latter signifies a significant shift in performance style of French vocal music, a shift that began in the early 1950s with the performances of Gérard Souzay, Nicolai Gedda, Rita Gorr and Gabriel Bacquier, then continued through the work of Huguette Tourangeau, Janet Baker and Régine Crespin. It was a shift (which had been gradually inching that way for a couple of decades) away from just singing the words “straight,” with no inflections or interpretation (in French chanson as well as in opera) to more of a style of acting with the voice. When Maazel’s recording was made in 1965, only Bacquier was in the new style of singing-actor. In this live performance, everyone is in the swing of things, and the result is one of the most delightful and entertaining performances I’ve ever heard.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that all of the singers have splendid voices, although our Gonsalve (one of Concepcion’s lovers), Julien Behr, is a little rough in his first entrance (his voice smooths out as he warms up). In addition, they all have crystal-clear diction, which helps enormously. I’m not sure if it’s a performance that Ravel would have approved—when it premiered in 1907, just three years after Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande—the old French style of singing was still very much in force—but I can’t imagine that anyone listening today wouldn’t enjoy it.

Indeed, as the opera progressed I became more and more enamored of the music and its performance. Fisch brings so much color and detail out of the orchestration that it’s almost like having a 3-D image of the score. You hear things you may not even have known were in there, little moments where a bassoon or a muted trombone is heard in the background texture. This may not sound like much, but if you listen to the recording carefully I think you’ll be as spellbound as I was. “Standard repertoire” fans probably won’t like it very much, largely because there’s really only one aria in the opera, Ramiro’s “Voilà!…Et maintenant, Señora,” unless you count Concepcion’s succeeding strophic monologue “Oh! la pitoyable aventure!,” but I absolutely loved it. Even at this early stage of his career, Ravel’s music was lively and colorful, and here he did a splendid job in matching the rhythms of the words to music, creating a score that flows remarkably well. The final scene, in which the solo singers’ voices overlap each other in a syncopated passage in which the rhythm seems to flow backwards, is especially well done.

All recordings of this opera have a filler, since it only runs about 47 minutes. Fisch has chosen another Spanish-influenced piece by a French composer, Emanuel Chabrier’s well-known chestnut España. It makes a nice if somewhat odd closer to the opera performance. I didn’t find it quite as lively as Leonard Slatkin’s live performance on YouTube, but it gets better (and brisker) as the performance goes on.

All in all, this is a splendid recording and performance, possibly a new benchmark for this poor little neglected gem of an opera.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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