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A Spanish Hour review at Black Mountains Barns, Herefordshire – ‘comic fervour’

Scene from Mid Wales Opera's A Spanish Hour. Photo: Matthew Williams Ellis
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There are many layers of wit and sophistication to Ravel’s 1911 first opera, L’heure Espagnole. Short but brilliantly inventive, on the one hand it’s a hot-blooded, bawdy bedroom farce; on the other it drips ennui, observing human absurdity with cool, Gallic wryness.

Reducing the complex, colourful score to chamber quartet for a SmallStages tour, Mid Wales Opera nonetheless capture the habanera sharpness of that contradiction – and Ravel’s fascination with automata and the mechanistic.

Taking cues from silent movie mime and gesture, director-designer and translator Richard Studer and music director Jonathan Lyness concoct a simple, but artful and engagingly funny, Spanish parody.

Ticking metronomes, verbal innuendo and priapic glissandi underscore the sexual frustrations of Catherine Backhouse’s Concepcion, a randy coquette whose clockmaker husband Torquemada (Peter Van Hulle) is more stimulated by his creations than her taffeta charms.

She has but “a Spanish hour” to enjoy her lover Gonzalve (Anthony Flaum). But his inept poeticisms and the arrival of muleteer Ramiro (Nicholas Morton) and banker Gomez (Matthew Buswell) necessitate quick-thinking swerves, with surprising but satisfying results.

The cast sing and act with comic fervour, the men complementary in painted faces and starkly satirical black, red and white 18th century/contemporary garb. Adroit use is made of a tiny performing area, a Toledo shop surreally delineated with stencilled cogs and large clock-faces-cum-hidey-holes.

It’s a vaudeville approach which successfully combines brash, Carry On humour with abstract concepts of time – endless, wasted, running out – within a happy-sad, clownish frame. A wonderful gift for far-flung rural audiences otherwise starved of live opera, Ravel’s scant 50 minutes (plus second-half Spanish medley concert) whizz by in no time at all.

 

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Verdict
Bawdy parody meets Gallic wryness in Mid Wales Opera's touring production
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