Opera: L’heure Espagnole

Is it still called a concert if it’s an opera?

I have a confession: this is the first opera I’ve ever attended, and one of only a few I’ve ever listened to from beginning to end. To my recollection, aside from L’heure Espagnole yesterday evening, the only operas I’ve ever listened to in their entirety are Wagner’s Das Rheingold (a few times) and Verdi’s La Traviata. That’s it, as far as I know. Anything else would be more like secondhand smoke than real listening.
All of that being said, I have more than a few opera friends. While the real heart of this blog was originally intended to be piano repertoire, I found myself drifting more and more toward the symphony as the expression of music, the pinnacle of all that is epic and full and grand. Mahler and all that.

It’s also music in a more absolute sense. While certain pieces have their programs (like ballet suites from Stravinsky or Ravel, for example, or even Mahler’s early conception for some of his symphonies, they’re just music… as in, I can listen to them at work or in the car (that I don’t have) without following subtitles or finding a translation of a German/Italian libretto so I know what’s going on for two and a half hours. What’s more, the structure of (many) symphonies is directly related to the music itself… it’s about the themes, their key, how they’re treated, and the accompanying movements after the sonata form, a scherzo/minuet, a slow movement, whatever. Telling a story in new and inventive ways through a structure like this is somehow fascinating and enduring and familiar yet new every time.
So, to be perfectly honest, the idea of opera seemed…. cumbersome, complicated, overly involved, and foreign, in more ways than just linguistically. Thinking about it as classical music rather than cinema meant I felt it was something unfamiliar, this layout of acts as with theatre. It’s hard to put my finger on exactly why I was disinterested, almost opposed to getting to be familiar with opera, but I’d say that one large reason is that it isn’t purely orchestral the way a symphony is. It involves the human voice (singing) and acting, stage, etc., all of which are things I’m frankly very unfamiliar with. The other main reason is that it’s a slippery slope, that… opening up a new world to discover. It happens quickly, and I don’t know that I can afford the time and effort necessary to fall in love with opera…
But I might be close at this point.
Yesterday, my acquaintance 湯發凱 the tenor played Gonzalve in a staging of Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole and was kind enough to make sure I got a ticket. This performance would
otherwise have easily slipped under my radar. It was put on by a small chamber group I have never heard of in a small and rather… lacking venue I’d been to only once, six years ago for some high school production. I did some light reading about the piece but ultimately decided to go relatively ignorant of the whole thing.
The staging was quite simple, with a divan, three grandfather clocks, and a small ottoman, a backdrop of pinkish(?) walls on which hung more clocks. It made it feel a bit like an Agatha Christie book. There was a small introductory talk that I wasn’t so sure I cared for. Although informative, I felt it maybe had a few too many spoilers or took away a bit of the drama from the story. In any case, the piece begins.
No play-by-plays here. I forgot to ask my tenor friend if these folks have worked together in the past. I’ve never attended another opera in my life, so it’s hard to say anything much insightful about the performances, except that I was completely enthralled. Even though it took my best efforts at listening to the French or reading the Chinese marquee, I was completely engrossed in the story. As with anything, even film, it takes some time to get to know each character, not just the role in the piece, but that individual and how they play their part. I suppose it was very fitting for the piece, but there was a light sense of comedy or satire in the feigned seriousness about each of the people in their respective roles. Concepcion is in a “serious” dilemma, and there are questions raised of true love, fidelity, true happiness and fulfillment, relationships, etc., but even if you don’t want to think of all that, at its very surface is a story that is comical, self contained and enjoyable, and the cast last night embodied that with little distraction.
There were a few elements that made it feel like a production that bordered on minimalist. For one, we had piano (four hands) and percussion, not a full orchestra, but even with the reduced forces, Ravel’s music is heavenly. The theatre was quite small, so even at my seat on the fifth row, I felt like I was practically on the stage, quite intimate, which was probably a good thing as it made up for the absolute lack of acoustics. The staging itself was pared down as well, with only a few bare necessities on stage.
It was originally that Beethoven’s Fidelio in a performance next month was to be my first opera, but Ravel’s little one-act piece showed up first, and I wasn’t going to turn it down. To be perfectly honest, I think it is, while not a traditional opera, an excellent choice for a first opera, in contrast to what the tenor told me when he suggested I not bring anyone along who isn’t familiar with or open to more unique pieces. Why?
For one, it’s short. As an opera in a single act, it doesn’t demand too much time from the audience. Secondly, it’s telling a very accessible story; there are no Norse gods, no German mythology, no complicated Shakespearean plot lines or irony that’s difficult to follow, no myriad cast members whose names you can’t remember. There were only five people on the stage to keep track of, and each of them last night really nailed their characters. Our leading lady, one 盧瓊蓉, kept our attention as she juggled her men and the logistics of where her clocks came and went. 林中光 played very well the role of Ramio, the simpleton of the bunch, content to move as many clocks up and down the stairs as necessary. The two contrasting love interests, 湯發凱 the poet Gonzalve and 羅俊穎 the banker expertly worked their way in and out of clocks and kind of stole the show. While 楊磊 didn’t have a ton of stage time as Torquemada, he set the mood for the whole performance on stage by himself at the opening, and the piece ended fantastically with all five of our lovely characters in a wonderful quintet.
I will say I was blown away by the performance last night despite the less-than-superb venue, but I’m not sure whether the magic is inherent to Ravel the genius composer, or whether our cast last night was really something special, or it was due to the intimacy of the setting, but I’m inclined to think it was a bit of everything. I greatly enjoyed the performance last night, and I’m afraid I will be spending much more time now familiarizing myself with this new world of music. Thanks to Ravel and thanks to 活水室內樂團, and all the performers, conductor, stage director and pianists. Wonderful evening! Bravo.

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