Ravel's operas are an odd choice in some ways for a student showcase production because they rely so little on vocal display and contain few roles that could be considered foundational for operatic careers. On the other hand the situation comedy L'heure espagnol provides an immense textual and dramatic challenge in the realm of rapid fire Gallic farce, and the fairy tale parable L'enfant et les Sortileges an object lesson in precise physical and vocal characterisation in each of the tiny roles that comprise the opera's mosaic structure.
Unfortunately James Bonas's double bill production did these young singers few favours. L'heure espagnole is a 'bubble of fancy' to steal Oscar Wilde's phrase, but as with any piece of theatre, we have to believe in the characters and situation and be moved by this set up before they can be truly funny to us. Here each character was instead reduced to a bland caricature floating around in an awkward, spacey set (by Ruari Murchison) which proved unhelpfully restrictive to the action. Containing nothing but a table and the two clocks in question as well as a clock face floor and spiral stair case, this set gave the whole thing the feel of an abstracted psychological setting, which might have made sense had the physical action hadn't been directed as a slap stick pantomime. The singers continually addressed the audience, always a difficult line to walk, and here it wasn't at all clear what the audience's function was within the opera/drama, as in who were we meant to be? What grated most on a purely practical level was that the clocks in which the characters are continually hiding in had open bottoms which were shown to the audience every time they were lifted, instantly destroying the illusion that the person was still inside. Of course we all know that they are not in there, but when we watch a show we buy into the make believe reality in front of us; carelessness like this interrupts and shatters our fragile illusions and unceremoniously ejects us back to our critical minds. Hard to think how something this basic was missed.
L'heure was however saved by the high musical values of the show. Under Michael Rosewell, the RCM opera orchestra made a truly ravishing sound, warm waves of glitter and gold, with the effect that Ravel's masterpiece sounded something like the most luxuriantly gorgeous film music you've ever heard, even though composed a quarter of a century before Hollywood's golden age. The fact that everyone on stage overacted to such a great degree cannot be blamed on these young artists - if it applies to the entire cast we can usually safely blame the director. Musically all were good, but Kezia Bienek stood out as Concepsión - this is a voice of considerable power, incisive beauty, and is strong in every register. One senses that there is yet more to be unlocked and I look forward to seeing her sing again.
L'enfant et les Sortileges proved slightly more successful staging wise, Ravel's cascading sequence of images registering clearly in the first half, each character obviously making its mark on the child. Then in the transition to the garden scene, instead of a forest we got a return to the clocks of L'heure, via hanging chains and cogs - a curious way of binding the two shows together because its expressive function wasn't at all obvious. There was such chaos at the work's climax that in the fracas I and my companion totally missed the child's moment of contrition and reparation. As I said in the opening paragraph, the fragmentary, non showy nature of the piece makes it hard to single out young singers for special praise, but again all were up to the challenge vocally and Rose Setten's Enfent was great fun to watch, especially in the tantrums of the opening section. The orchestra again made a very fine sound.
A mixed bag then, more engaging musically than dramatically, but the RCM's upcoming Arianna in Creta will surely provide a more obvious platform to display the talents of their singing students.