Sultry Spanish rhythms and bawdy humour are counterbalanced by Gallic charm in the return to Glyndebourne Festival Opera of Laurent Pelly’s productions of L’heure espagnole and L’Enfant et les sortilèges. Composed 15 years apart, Ravel’s one act operas were never intended as a double bill, yet they complement each other splendidly to round off a triumphant 2015 season. Danielle de Niese, doubling as Concepción and L’Enfant, joined a largely Francophone cast, most of whom were making accomplished House debuts, to ensure this joyous revival fizzed.

Danielle de Niese (Concepción) © Richard Hubert Smith
Danielle de Niese (Concepción)
© Richard Hubert Smith

In L’heure espagnole Pelly acknowledges every orchestral sigh, grunt or groan with astute direction, fully relishing the libretto’s double entendres as Danielle de Niese’s sex-starved Concepción ‘entertains’ Torquemada’s clients while he is out maintaining the municipal clocks. Innuendo abounds, telegraphed and unsubtle, yet the production still has tremendous comic flair. Caroline Ginet’s horological set is cluttered with clocks of every description, ticking, whirring and chiming. Muscly muleteer Ramiro unwittingly transports Concepción’s lovers to her bedroom, each concealed inside a grandfather clock. Both lovers – the poet Gonzalve and the rich banker Don Íñigo – disappoint her. Concepción eventually takes the bull by the horns, realises that Ramiro is her best option and dashes off with him, having already ‘sampled his wares’ in the bedroom.

De Niese’s coquettish Concepción is a delight. Vocally, although there isn’t mezzo voluptuousness, she brings plenty of sex and spice to the role, in very decent French. Étienne Dupuis’ macho muleteer is so beautifully sung that Concepción should have succumbed to his honeyed baritone a good deal sooner than she does. Cyrille Dubois sings the poet Gonzalve with mellifluous charm, despite being hampered by his 1970s flares and flower-power shirt, while Lionel Lhote exels as the clumsily amorous banker, Don Íñigo Gómez. High tenor François Piolino reprises his naïve Torquemada, oblivious of his wife’s amorous intentions.

Danielle de Niese (Concepción) and Cyrille Dubois (Gonzalve) © Richard Hubert Smith
Danielle de Niese (Concepción) and Cyrille Dubois (Gonzalve)
© Richard Hubert Smith

After the long picnic interval, Pelly plunges us into a very different world. Bawdy farce is forgotten as we enter the realms of childhood for an entrancing L’Enfant. The Child is completely dwarfed by his nursery in Barbara de Limburg’s terrific set. Perched at his enormous desk, he scrawls and scratches away at his homework with an oversized fountain pen. Bored, he only succeeds in spattering ink everywhere and is punished by his mother.

In the resulting tantrum, however, we see the Child kick the teapot and cup from the table, tear pages from his book and pull a strip of wallpaper away. The room comes alive and he is admonished by various characters, from the surreal – a wicked foxtrot between the teapot and a Chinese cup – to the lamenting shepherds and shepherdesses stepping down from their wallpaper pattern. I’m still puzzled why Pelly replaces the injured squirrel of the libretto with the nightingale, but as he doesn’t show the caged squirrel being poked by the Child with his pen nib in the opening scene, it makes little difference.

François Piolino (Teapot) and Elodie Méchain (Chinese Cup) © Richard Hubert Smith
François Piolino (Teapot) and Elodie Méchain (Chinese Cup)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Swift scene changes keep the visual – and aural – gags flowing thick and fast, but also add to the surreal nightmarish atmosphere. Although on stage the whole opera, Danielle de Niese’s Child – almost unrecognisable from her Concepción – doesn’t have a great deal to sing here. This is a true ensemble piece, with many doubling of roles, and Glyndebourne has assembled an enviable cast. De Niese pouts and scowls deliciously as a very naughty boy, wrapping her tongue around Collette’s libretto.

Sabine Devieilhe proved the star turn as the storybook Princess, the Nightingale and as a scintillating Fire, full of pinpoint coloratura runs delivered whilst being flung about the stage. Piolino’s Teapot sparred with Elodie Méchain’s Chinese cup to great comic effect (“I box you, I marm'lade you”), while Étienne Dupuis and Hanna Hipp provided slinky feline antics in their duet. Dupuis also impressed as the demented Grandfather Clock. The Glyndebourne Chorus, in a variety of arboreal and animal disguises, added to a magical final garden scene.

Sabine Devieilhe (Fire) and Danielle de Niese (The Child) © Richard Hubert Smith
Sabine Devieilhe (Fire) and Danielle de Niese (The Child)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Robin Ticciati drew fine playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, defining the habanera Spanish rhythms well in L’heure espagnole, grumpy contrabassoon and silvery flute to the fore in L’Enfant, but also great string delicacy in the score’s softer moments. The final “Maman!” brought a lump to the throat and rightly so, a sure indication that Ravel’s little masterpiece had worked its magic once again. A perfect summer evening entertainment.