Maurice Ravel, the Swiss watchmaker’s son, had to make do with the indifferent standards and the sometimes hostile attitudes of the French performers of his day. The original performance of his first opera, L’Heure espagnole, fell flat with audiences, in no small part due to the then novel approach that Ravel took to setting the libretto. Taking Mussorgsky’s aborted opera after Gogol, The Marriage, as an example, he modeled the singing lines of his score on the natural rhythms and cadences of spoken French. The virtuoso orchestral scoring, too, taxed the abilities of the old Opéra Comique ensemble that helped bring the opera into the world.

Charles Dutoit
© Chris Lee

Flash forward some 100-odd years later and one encounters in the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra every bit the ideal Ravelian instrument: an ensemble of virtuosi that delight in their individual beauty of detail, yet can bring each of those parts whirring together with all the precision and efficiency of the finest clockwork. The opening moments of Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole opened under the baton of guest conductor Charles Dutoit as the very magical utterances the composer had surely intended. Ravel being Ravel, his orchestra does not content itself with being mere background for the singers, but – as the score’s numerous trombone glissandi and woodwind chattering demonstrate – often shares the spotlight itself, though Dutoit, an old hand at the composer’s music, judiciously balanced its contribution.

The singing cast was superb, with the agile tenor of Benjamin Hulett (Gonzalve) and the impeccable comic timing of the sonorous baritone David Wilson-Johnson (Don Iñigo) drawing especial attention. Very fine, too, were tenor François Piolino as the hapless, cuckolded Torquemada who guilelessly pulls one over his rivals by the opera’s close and baritone Jean-Luc Ballestra as the earnest, naïve Muleteer. Mezzo Isabel Leonard was fine, though a bit too rich voiced for a role better suited to a soubrette. 

Orchestra and star soloist were immaculately balanced as well in the work that closed the opening half of the concert, Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major. Pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet reveled in the glittering play and bejeweled textures of this concerto. Most telling was his handling of the work’s central Adagio assai, which flowed from his fingers with serenity and liquid suavity. Tenderness and warmth both were there, but they were never allowed to intrude as sentiment. Thibaudet invited the listener to observe them, but not to soak in them. It was the same with the work’s frantic Presto finale which he and the LAPO dispatched with enviable clarity and unanimity of execution that was always at the service of the score’s mordant humor.

Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte opened Friday's program devoted to the composer’s music. Dutoit allowed the silky, diaphanous strings of the Los Angeles Phil to virtually steal the show in this wistful music. The performance was only marred at the very start by a hint of rhythmic instability and a cracked horn note from which the orchestra very quickly recovered. What lingered in the mind most, however, were the concerto and opera. The orchestral realization of both these works from the composer’s maturity were every bit ideal and confirmed yet again that the Los Angeles Philharmonic is currently enjoying a golden age in its history.