In Richard Jones’ production of L’heure espagnole, we’re greeted on entering the auditorium by a huge pair of cartoon breasts that fill the whole proscenium area. They set the tone for what’s to follow: a slice of French farce with large men stuffed into small spaces, a cuckolded husband, a lover who’s more interested in poetry than sex, and many comings and goings between bedroom and workplace.
Written by Ravel around 1907-9, it’s neither dramatically nor musically as inventive as the charming L’Enfant et les sortilèges of some 15 years later. To make up for it, Jones throws everything at it, including the proverbial Dancing Girls, an admission maybe that there isn’t quite enough in the work to maintain a thin joke over the span of 55 minutes.
Christine Rice, who is undoubtedly blossoming into a great leading lady, sings excellently but disappoints slightly with an interpretation lacking in any sexiness, something she’s perfectly capable of. She opts for a trashy seaside postcard portrayal of a Spanish landlady who’s gagging for it. It does raise a few laughs but makes you wonder why all the men are so interested. As the innocent muleteer Ramiro, Christopher Maltman is perfectly cast, all muscle and a mop of hair that renders him almost unrecognisable. Yann Beuron is terrific as the dopey poet Gonzalve and Andrew Shore characteristically colourful as the lusty banker Don Inigo.
Following the interval, the breasts have given way to a huge painting of spaghetti, signalling that we’re moving from the sin of lust to that of greed with Gianni Schicchi, and here the production goes into hyperdrive. Jones and designer John Macfarlane have set it in a shabby 1960s apartment and we’re in Fellini territory with laughs. It’s Richard Jones at his best, with every detail beautifully observed and wonderfully individual performances from all the ensemble, which includes some star names Gwynne Howell, Joan Rodgers and Marie McLaughlin among them.
This is Puccini’s only comedy, and at 60 minutes a short one, but it’s absolutely spot-on. When the vulturous relatives sit down to read Buoso Donati’s will, Puccini stretches it out musically for as long as he can before they click that they’re getting nothing. It’s great comedy timing. There’s something outrageous, Ortonesque even, about an opera in which a dead body gets unceremoniously chucked around the stage and the production extracts every ounce out of it. Relatives burst up through the floor and down from the ceiling in the frantic search for the will, part of a stream of inventive business.
At the centre of the piece, Bryn Terfel, in a role he was born to play, gives an hilarious interpretation of Schicchi as Mr Fix-It the Janitor. Saimir Pirgu is a real find as the juve lead, Rinuccio, giving an absolutely beautiful rendition of “Firenze come un albero fiorito” and with a gorgeous tone throughout. Dina Kuznetsova as Lauretta fails to charm, though, the famous number “O Mio Babbino Caro” not quite as sweet as it could be.
Antonio Pappano directs a sharp performance from the Covent Garden orchestra that more than does justice to Puccini’s beautiful score and supports the fast and furious shenanigans perfectly.
Overlooking the proceedings centre stage is a bust of Dante, as a brief incident from his Inferno is spun into an hour of pure gold. He ends the evening wearing Schicchi’s cap, a fag hanging from his venerable mouth, an irreverent symbol of how his work has been taken by both composer and producer and turned into something genuinely funny. There are not many operas you can say that about.