Jan Essinger’s production featured members of the International Opera Studio, the academy of aspiring opera singers for whom the renowned Zurich opera house is both graduate school and stage. The Ravel double-bill at the Winterthur Theater was accompanied by the Musikkollegium Winterthur under conductor Pavel Baleff’s seasoned baton.

Carmen Seibel (Concepción) and Trystan Llŷr Griffiths (Gonzalve) © Monika Rittershaus
Carmen Seibel (Concepción) and Trystan Llŷr Griffiths (Gonzalve)
© Monika Rittershaus

Ravel’s very first work for theater, L’Heure espagnole (“Spanish Time”, or better yet, “What we Do with our Time in Spain”) is a one-act comédie musicale which premiered in Paris in 1911, its libretto by Franc-Nohain. Cited once as “mildly pornographic vaudeville”, since the libretto equates sexual appetite with the workings of a clock, the opera features a host of timepieces’ ticking and whirring. The enticing Concepción enjoys amorous interludes above her clockmaker-husband’s shop while he (Torquemada) steps out to attend to the city’s public clocks. In the hour-long opera, two fashionable lovers arrive in succession. While the poet Gonzalve sings serenades with deliberately exaggerated melodies, the banker Don Iñigo Gomez and the others, “give the impression of being spoken”, said the composer, attempting to express irony through musical means.

But it’s a third fellow − the muleteer Ramiro − who ultimately wins Concepción’s heart. Though he came simply to have his watch repaired, Concepción charges him with transporting her lovers − both hiding inside large standing clocks − from shop to upstairs to keep them out of the way. By the time Torquemada returns from his municipal duties and the two suitors emerge, the fickle Concepción has decided on the muscular Ramiro. The opera ends with all five characters stepping out of character to sing the moral: "Among all lovers, only the efficient succeed,” making a good case for a man who knows how to use his hands.

Ildo Song (Don Iñigo), Trystan Llŷr Griffiths (Gonzalve), Carmen Seibel and Gyula Rab (Torquemada) © Monika Rittershaus
Ildo Song (Don Iñigo), Trystan Llŷr Griffiths (Gonzalve), Carmen Seibel and Gyula Rab (Torquemada)
© Monika Rittershaus

Except for the clock-housings, Sonja Füsti’s stage design was limited to blackboard panels covered with chalk drawings of clock faces in a strictly frontal constellation. The singers, too, largely sang frontally, pointing, perhaps, to the comedy’s overriding two-dimensionality. As Concepción, Carmen Siebel’s shrill role demanded she put everything she did and sang on steroids, allowing little variation in timbre. Yet hers was a solid, athletic performance, even in extreme postures that made for a good degree of vulgarity. Costume designer Jeannette Seiler nicely enhanced that, giving the female lead a skirt like a battleaxe and hair that vied for attention with Maria Antoinette’s wig.

Trystan Llŷr Griffiths sang the persistent, oddball poet with humorous intonation. As the pompous banker, Ildo Song shared a voice that easily reached the farthest of the hall’s 800 seats. Huw Montague Rendall sang a handsome Ramiro, and Gyula Rab, the cuckolded Torquemada. The opera’s somewhat Spanish-tainted orchestration included the additions of metronome, castanets and a couple of wind instruments seldom heard; overall, though, you'd do best to be true fan of slapstick at this performance.

Dara Davinova (Child) and Gemma Ní Bhriain (Cat) © Monika Rittershaus
Dara Davinova (Child) and Gemma Ní Bhriain (Cat)
© Monika Rittershaus

Fourteen years after L’Heure espagnole, Ravel premiered L’Enfant et les sortilèges (“The Child and the Spells”) to a libretto written by Colette. Having been punished for not finishing his homework, a boy has a terrible tantrum and completely destroys the interior of his room. As can only happen in opera, the damaged objects and the animals he taunted and tortured then magically rise up against him.

Rather than the scripted staging − the child’s bedroom and the garden − Füsti places the action in a convent school classroom with large neo-Gothic windows and an expanse of standard school furniture. When the curtain rises, the Mother Superior is conducting a class of some dozen pupils. Afterwards, though, forced to serve detention after class alone, the frustrated child rampages, toppling chairs, tables, and everything else in his way. When the creatures the child had abused also haunt him, the ensuing “animal ballet” is both seductive and sinister, any resolution coming only after the child helps one of the animals with its injured paw. He is forgiven, and evokes “Mother” once again as his final word; whether that be the “Superior” or just “Mom” is hard to say.

Dara Davinova (Child) © Monika Rittershaus
Dara Davinova (Child)
© Monika Rittershaus

Guest singer Dara Savinova sang a compelling Child, although she could well have shot more evil into the Act 1 “demolition”. In a spectacular subsequent scene, soprano Claire de Sévigné rose as the Princess from beneath the floor like a star-studded 15-foot votive figure. One wished she had stayed. Other characters were costumed with papier-maché heads resembling various animals and insects. Yet despite their transformations from ominous presence to supportive friends, it was difficult to identify who was singing what from behind the huge masks. Also perplexing were the several “Yoda” look-alikes that might well have been grabbed from a “Star Wars” set. Fortunately, there was less confusion around the lively chorus, which consistently underscored Ravel’s contention that “the emphasis is on melody”. And in sum, the promise of such accomplished IOS talents in this production was its own reward.