Kenneth Richardson has semi-staged any number of operas in concert in London, one of which – Birtwistle’s The Second Mrs. Kong, at the RFH – remains just about the greatest performance of any opera I’ve encountered live. His latter day work with the BBC SO at the Barbican has produced any number of exemplary accounts, not least The Adventures of Mr. Broucek and Julietta. So it’s just my (habitual) bad luck that the very first of his stagings about which I have some serious reservations should, of course, be the (only) one I’ve ever been called upon to review. The odd thing is that the flaw was both basically very simple and easily correctable, but alas exerted an exponentially damaging effect on the cumulative impact of the work as the evening progressed. There isn’t all that much you absolutely have to have by way of practicable scenery to make Ravel’s deliciously louche one-acter work: but the one thing that cannot be dispensed with is the presence of two physically inhabitable grandfather clocks. Now, I’m quite aware that, as a concert hall, the Barbican stage doesn’t run to the kind of sophisticated trap-systems that allowed the ROH to have any number of bodies both disappearing into, and emerging out of, clocks seemingly carted around loaded with them by Christopher Maltman in Richard Jones’s eye-watering staging at the ROH in 2007 and 2009. But what would have been wrong here with having two tall boxes with doors and clock faces into which the lovers could really vanish, their feet still visible at the bottom, say, and therefore allowing them to make their own way offstage to Concepción’s bedroom whilst appearing to be “carried” by the muleteer?
Instead, the solution offered here to the plot-critical problem of stage-managing exits and entrances dans horloge was feeble in the extreme, and not even funny in its inadequate way. Instead of getting into their respective clocks, both Gonzalve, the poet who would rather mould verse than maul flesh, and Don Inigo, the fat banker whose avoirdupois wedges him firmly inside his, merely half-hid behind exiguous little flat cardboard cut-outs of Big Ben, leaving them permanently visible to all and sundry. The jokes about delicate balances, sensitive pendulums, polished wooden interiors like coffins, all promptly went for nothing (to say nothing of Jacques Imbrailo - Ramiro the muleteer – forgetting to bring the first clock back on “empty” after unwittingly depositing Gonzalve “upstairs”: an evening-dressed, head-miked BBC super had to creep on with it in order to keep the merest semblance of the plot’s clockwork from collapsing altogether). The idea of progressively illuminating the Barbican Hall’s ultra-wide stage area and walls with projections of giant clocks during the mechanical mayhem of the prelude had seemed such an excellent and atmospheric start that it was doubly disappointing to find that there would be no effective solution to the handling of the plot’s only real dramatic “action” other than end-of-pier amateurishness. Poor David Wilson-Johnson (Don Inigo), poor Julien Behr (Gonzalve), I thought, having to maintain the precise momentum of farce whilst still clutching their scores and having to mime the pretence of enclosed invisibility whilst obviously not.
And poor Jacques Imbrailo, to whom fell the unenviable task of trying to find a suitably unembarrassed expression to wear during the endless furniture removals in which he moved absolutely nothing: though frankly I’m not at all sure whether even a staging as helpful as Jones’s would find him well employed. He might look sexy enough as Ramiro - checked shirt and jeans tucked into cowboy boots – but he lacks the natural flair of a stage comedian like Maltman (whose biceps do indeed dépassent tous mes concepts) who can make something funny out of dim-wittedness, whilst Imbrailo never looked much more than hang-dog all night long. The voice is a beautiful modulated baritone noble: you couldn’t wish for a better Billy Budd, say, or Onegin. But as his Malatesta proved at the recent ROH revival of Don Pasquale, comedy’s not really his thing. He tries, bless him, but it isn’t there (I mean, can you imagine him as Papageno? Quite).
This was all the more evident in comparison with Ruxandra Donose’s Concepción, a completely realised characterisation, both shrewd and sex-starved (as seen at Covent Garden in 2009) needing only a smidge more sheer voice and a stronger, more resinous lower register to qualify as ideal. And her frock, an angular assemblage of the hottest colours, was excellent too, well establishing her desperate plight in a world of otherwise dowdy men (hubby Torquemada wore dungarees). Jean-Paul Fouchécourt nailed him perfectly, though I’ve seen stagings that make a kind of fiscal complicity with his wife in the matter much clearer (just how many clocks has he sold before in this manner, one starts to wonder?). Julien Behr, almost fresh from music college, found the occasional above-the-stave excursions Ravel throws at Gonzalve a mite taxing: and he too sporadically vanished under the momentary weight of the orchestration (generally as light and airborne as thistle-down, but every now-and-then…). Still, his basic instrument is attractively French-sounding, with that slightly nasal pinch of vinegar which isn’t just the language at work, but is the authentic timbre of French tenors down the ages (Thill, of course, excepted). And it was good to see David Wilson-Johnson again after – for me, at least – a long gap, the voice essentially unchanged in the interim, albeit still rather spread of tonal focus. On the other hand, Ravel did say that all the roles – apart from Gonzalve’s – were to be sung “quasi-parlando”: and this he duly did (though whether by vocal intention or lack of alternatives, I cannot say).
The BBC SO plainly had a good time – led, oddly, by the LSO’s Tomo Keller – and responded enthusiastically both to Ravel’s gorgeously seductive score (written in 1907/8) and to the conducting of Josep Pons – Associate Principal at the Liceo this many a year – who kept the whole thing ticking over nicely (literally, at times). Memory suggests that Pappano got rather more sex and swagger into his account at the ROH, but that may have as much to do with the nature of their show as anything else. Certainly, the string of habañeras, malagueñas and seguidillas that thread their way throughout the score sounded authentically Spanish (Ravel was Basque on his mother’s side) and brought the whole glittering 50-minute miniature miracle to a most rousing conclusion. This whets the appetite for the other half of the Ravel double-bill – L’enfant et les sortilèges – which the BBC SO will give next April (in a semi-staging by Jean-Baptiste Barrière heavy on the use of video screens and live-image projections: we will see how that works).
I should at least en passant mention the substantial first-half of the concert, which featured Haydn’s Symphony No.101, “The Clock” – are you getting the thematic programming link yet? – in a spry but essentially old-fashioned sort of a performance (allegros not rushed off their feet, articulation and sonority fairly upholstered): and a real rarity, Hummel’s Piano Concerto, written in 1816, and which might be interesting for containing so many pre-echoes of Chopin if it weren’t for the fact that it manages to squeeze about half-a-million notes of endless figuration into less than 30 minutes. Stephen Hough coped more than manfully with the ear-boggling profusion of frantic, meaningless embellishment: but it was beyond cruel of him to return and perform, as an encore, Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin (No.8 of the First Book of Preludes) which contains, in one-tenth of the running time and about 99.9% fewer notes, a thousand times more real music than the Hummel he’d just been hacking his way through. Strange are the ways….
Photographs © Nicolae Alexa (Donose), Sim Canetty-Clarke (Imbrailo)