Ravel’s two one-act operas, L’Heure espagnole and L’Enfant et les sortilèges, were composed some 14 years apart but are habitually paired in the opera house. For her staging of the two works for Oper Köln, Béatrice Lachaussée has attempted to link the two very different stories through unity of design and one or two rather too obvious overlaps of character. L’Heure is shorn of its Spanish colour – that is left to the music – and Nele Ellegiers’s costume designs evoke instead more the Parisian 1920s, with Concepción (Katrin Wundsam) almost a Lulu-lookalike (the Wedekind/Berg one, not the songstress), which seems to read too much into the frothy romantic entanglements portrayed. The set is a huge dismantled clock, which Torquemada (John Heuzenroeder) is seen attempting to fix before being called away by his duty to the townhall timepiece (the opening was magical, with conductor François-Xavier Roth setting a series of metronomes going on his way to the podium, setting the hour on its course).
Instead of the usual grandfather clocks that Concepción has Ramiro the muleteer (Thomas Dolié) cart up and down, we have oversized pocket watch and alarm clock, making the plot’s hiding and discovery more surreal than farcical. Meanwhile we see Concepción trying to make use of her hour free from her clockmaker husband to lure Gonzalvo (Jeongki Cho) to her bedroom when all he’s interested in is reciting his poetry to her, while Don Inigo Gomez (Tomislav Lavoie) shows more interest in her then she is prepared to contemplate – she chooses the muleteer instead. Ravel’s comedy is an expertly paced five-hander, and the cast did the best they could with the rather bald performance space. Wundsam’s Concepción sounded surprisingly light of voice for a supposed mezzo, but Dolié compensated with some eloquent singing and Cho brought almost Mozartian purity to his poetical role. It’s a shame that the director felt the need to wreck the equilibrium of the final quintet with a rather gratuitous early appearance of the naughty child from the later opera, tearing through everything on the set as the lights cut.
Cologne Opera is currently homeless, suffering from complicated contractual issues concerning the rebuild of its home in the city centre – a process that has already extended two seasons beyond its original completion date. In the meantime, the company has taken up residence in a series of temporary homes, and is currently based in an exhibition hall across the Rhine, the Staatenhaus. The lack of proscenium and fly tower in the resulting performing space seems to have restricted Lachaussee’s imagination rather than fired it, and one feels more could have been done in both operas to exploit the space better.
L’Enfant relies very much on the costumes to do the work, including the same alarm clock from the first opera. Regina Richter was an ebulliant Child, and her sonorous mezzo really caught the sense of remorse near the end. Elsewhere Dongmin Lee’s effortless coloratura stole the show whenever she appeared as Fire, Princess and Nightingale and there were delightful cameos from the rest of the multi-tasking cast. The excellent chorus was supplemented by children from the Cologne Cathedral Choir as the mathematical elements let loose from the homework exercise book. Yet for all the humour in music and staging, it is the pathos of the ending that sticks in the mind, as the forgiven child calls for her Maman with beseeching, upturned arms.
François-Xavier Roth’s Ravel is more analytical than that of many a conductor, and he drew out every magical detail of the composer’s miraculous orchestration in both works. The players of the Cologne Gurzenich Orchestra, especially the wind soloists, produced a gorgeous, multi-faceted sound, uninhibited by the Staatenhaus’s somewhat dry acoustic.
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