RAVEL L'Heure Espagnol
Smut and sophistication rub shoulders in Ravel’s wonderfully sardonic sex comedy, first performed at the Opéra-Comique in 1911. It’s a tricky piece to get right, though. Overplay the bawdry, as at Glyndebourne in 2012, and you risk coarseness. Err on the side of caution and things can turn anodyne. Asher Fisch’s new recording, made during concert performances in Munich with a youngish francophone cast, is nicely sensual and engaging, if just occasionally short on irony.
Fisch aims for headiness but avoids blatancy. Rhythms pulse and throb, and the Hispanic turns of melody often have a pointed suavity that hints at innuendo. The orchestral sound, all plush strings and warm woodwind, is beguilingly opulent, but might not appeal to those who see Ravel primarily in terms of restraint and clarity. There’s a languorous feel to it all, which says much about the relationship between pace and tempo in Fisch’s conducting, since he’s by no means slower than his rivals. This is beautifully engineered, too, though the ticking metronomes at the start are placed a bit too far back.
The singers play it straight without resorting to caricature. The results are often nicely ambivalent, though Julien Behr tends to understate Gonzalve’s poetic extravagance and Lionel Lhote sounds too young for the ageing if priapic Íñigo. But Alexandre Duhamel reveals striking levels of tenderness beneath Ramiro’s rough exterior, Mathias Vidal is unusually endearing as fussy Torquemada and Gaëlle Arquez’s glamorous Concepción has a wonderful line in understated obscenity: ‘Cet homme est doué!’, almost thrown away yet riddled with meaning, is priceless. It’s a fine achievement, though I still prefer the darker lustre of Ansermet’s interpretation with Suzanne Danco, still matchless as Concepción. No texts are provided here, which is a major drawback. And we don’t really need Fisch’s rather hard-driven performance of España as a filler.