When Richard Jones’ double-bill of Ravel’s L’Heure espagnole and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi premiered in 2007 it was celebrated for its tragi-comic assessment of the themes of lust and greed. In this, its first revival at Covent Garden, a year after economic meltdown, the pairing – and Jones’ presentation – seems all the more delicious.
Most of the original cast have returned for both pieces but a notable change in the L’Heure espagnole line-up comes with the Romanian mezzo Ruxandra Donose who replaces Christine Rice as Conception, the feisty and frustrated female lead who attempts to juggle a string of lovers while her absent-minded husband is off winding the town clocks. Donose has an eye for comic performance, flapping and flirting with great effect, and her voice packs the necessary punch, while Christopher Maltman makes a welcome return as the muscular muleteer Ramiro, his focused baritone providing some necessary weight and focus.
Ravel’s nervy score communicates Concepcion’s emotions well but the composer occasionally seems ill at ease with the humour of the piece, which is heavily supplemented by the slapstick storyline. John Macfarlane’s eye-catching set designs – sickly pink, boudoir kitsch – add to the overall absurdity, and well-judged performances from Yann Beuron (Gonzalve) and Andrew Shore (Don Inigo Gomez) keep the drama just the right side of farce.
Last time audiences were treated to Bryn Terfel as Gianni Schicchi; this time round the casting is no less spoiling with Thomas Allen playing the title role. Allen’s turn as the crooked peasant, here an upstart builder, is perfectly judged and sung with style and authority. Maria Bengtsson fairs well as Lauretta, and her account of the showcase aria, “O mio babbino caro”, was beautifully sung, if checked by a little Swedish reserve, but the most exciting contribution came from Stephen Costello’s Rinuccio. This young American singer made his Royal Opera debut in Linda di Chamounix last month and his resonant, lyrical tenor voice promises great things.
As with the Ravel, action takes place within a single but ingenious set. The chintz wallpaper, leaky ceiling and domestic clutter tell you all you need to know about the context, and each greedy relative of the deceased Buoso Donati is a wonderful character study: slippery without being gargoylish. Gwynne Howell’s bumbling Simone is to be especially noted among an impressive supporting cast.
It might have been tempting to overplay for laughs but Elaine Kidd, the revival director, keeps the drama slick and tightly controlled. And Antonio Pappano’s masterful account of both scores is warm, controlled and engaging.