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Phwoah, what a pair of stunners!

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
10/17/2009 -  & October 20, 22, 24, 28
Maurice Ravel: L'Heure espagnole
Giacomo Puccini: Gianni Schicchi

Bonaventura Bottone (Torquemada), Christopher Maltman (Ramiro), Concepcion (Ruxandra Donose), Yann Beuron (Gonzalve), Andrew Shore (Don Inigo Gomez)
Gwynne Howell (Simone), Elena Zilio (Zita), Stephen Costello (Rinuccio), Jeremy White (Betto di Signa), Robert Poulton (Marco), Marie McLaughlin (La Ciesca), Alan Oke (Gherardo), Janis Kelly (Nelly), Alexander Howard-Williams (Gherardino), Thomas Allen (Gianni Schicchi), Maria Bengtsson (Lauretta), Henry Waddington (Maestro Spinelloccio), Enrico Fissore (Ser Amantio di Nicolao), Nicholas Garrett (Pinellino), Paul Goodwin-Groen (Guccio)
Orchestra and Chorus of Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Antonio Pappano (conductor)
John MacFarlane (set designs), Nicky Gillibrand (costume designs), Mimi Jordan Sherin (light design), Lucy Burge (choreography), Paul Kieve (illusionist), Richard Jones (director), Elaine Kidd (revival director)

T. Allen & G. Howell (© Persson)

A vast frontdrop painting of cleavage, lush, buxom and inviting, opens L'Heure espagnole, a nod not just to the heroine's main charms but also to the utter, erotic voluptuousness of Ravel's score. I kept thinking, through this brilliantly funny and pacy revival, that this double bill would have been a far better, shorter, sexier choice for the much publicized Sun readers' offer than the Francesca Zamballo's rather dreary and literal Carmen. Covent Garden have made rather a speciality of pairing L'Heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi, even as far back as 1926. Sir Georg Solti repeated this union of French and Italian dark humour in his first year as musical director and forty five years later in 2007 Antonio Pappano and Richard Jones thought it high time for a new look at the tales of randy wives, body lifting and identity fraud.

On its first revival there has been an attempt to retain most of the casting from first time around. The dark voiced Christine Rice, however, was this time replaced by Ruxandra Donose, equally voluptuous of voice and physique. Donose's timbre, so reminiscent of Tatiana Troyanos, has an extra smokiness that suits the kaleidoscopic, mercurial score. She was hilarious, not just for the cool detachment towards her husband but for her sexually charged fury at the essential uselessness of her men.

Yann Beuron, as ever, was a superb Gonzalve, dressed hideously in orange shirt, flares and Jarvis Cocker glasses, his nerdy tenor making the most of the pretentious would be poet. Her other, equally ineffectual suitor was grandly played by Andrew Shore. Bottone was droll as the clinically dull clockmaker, an astute businessman and pragmatic husband, allowing the Ramiro the muler to visit his wife with the time. As Ramiro Christopher Maltman was endearing as the gormless but sweet macho man, too shy to talk, too in love to refuse Concepcion.

There's no point to this opera unless the audience is allowed to sink in alive in this sweetly amoral world. With optical illusions and simple, ingenious sets, dozens of clocks ticking away all showing the different time, Jones drew us in, the plush, sensual reds and sheer beauty of it all lulling us in to this surreal merry-go-round of a wife trying to betray her clockmaker husband. It is almost a moral ending; the nice guy gets the girl, the girl gets sex. It's just that the husband doesn't. But even he sells some clocks. Imagine an erotic dream, after having eaten half a pack of cheddar, and you have Jones' winning production, acutely aware of Ravel's jokes and effects without ever getting in the way.

The orchestral playing was all top notch. Ravel and Puccini play especially well to Pappano's strengths; his lush but flexible string sound, careful use of rubato and basic belief in colour. I thought initially that the opium infused wooziness of L'Heure’s sound world had spilled into the Puccini, robbing the piece of its spikiness and wit but suddenly, during the first mention of Schicchi's name, a light was switched on in the sound and the tight, brassy sarcasm came through. For once, Pappano didn't take “O mio babbino caro” too slowly, letting it be Puccini's brief, moment of self mockery amidst the gallows humour of what bookends the Classic FM aria.

Mostly I found the new cast menbers better than two years ago. The supporting roles, in particular, are still extremely well played. Fissore wisely played the hoodwinked notary dead straight, creating unbearable tension amidst the dysfunctional family which, as in 2007, contains Gwynne Howell's devious old codger, Simone and McLaughlin's brightly insincere La Ciesca. New was Maria Bengtsson's Lauretta. She sang beautifully but was slightly too creamy voiced and smooth of diction for the sweet daddy's girl. Stephen Costello was very believable as the one good guy in this sleazy, snobbish bunch of relatives, his pleasant, Italianate tenor making much of his little aria but not quite cutting through large ensembles. The star, predictably, was Thomas Allen, fresh from Woody Allen's production of the same opera, and more at home in Jones' dingy 1970's view of Italian families, than Bryn Terfel's jovial, healthy sounding Schicchi back in 2007. With man boobs, stained clothing and fag hanging out, Allen's handyman is a desperate family's choice to rewrite your dead relative's will and all the funnier when standing still, watching these hideous people tie themselves in knots. It's a master class in ensemble comic timing and stillness, even though his voice is greying and fickle of pitch. These days Allen's nutty baritone is like an antique Ferrari, it graunches, it needs warming up but what a performance and such a beautiful sound!

With its depressing flock wallpaper and post-war suburban despair, this is a more typical Richard Jones production, a battery of leitmotifs and obsessions that, in the wrong opera, I find rather wearing and shrill but here fits like a glove. Now and then, there's a joke too many, like the doctor examining stools but his constant imagination and clear love of the music is always apparent; he's far more aware of Puccini's pacing than many who can't believe Puccini would write anything this sick. Nevertheless, it is Jones' special sensitivity to L'Heure espagnole that surprises me, a belief in letting the music tell the jokes and letting the production tick over without bogging it down in subtexts or his retro decor. For the next few days this is the funniest show in town.

Barnaby Rayfield



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