Dozens of stars - L'heure Espagnole
Under Wasfi Kani’s ebulliently entrepreneurial leadership Grange Park Opera is never knowingly under-sponsored. She must be the only impresario to have auctioned off different parts of her cast’s bodies to different philanthropists. With this bizarre but beguiling film of Ravel’s one-act musical comedy, however, she has excelled herself in the product-placement field. As befits a show about an old clockmaker, his randy wife and the lovers she hopes to entertain in the hour he is out winding the town’s clocks, the whole thing is filmed in a real treasure trove of tick-tocks — Howard Walwyn Fine Antique Clocks in Kensington Church Street, London. Except, that is, when the cast pop into the equally upmarket Sally Clarke Shop down the road.
The standout performance is Ashley Riches as Don Inigo Gomez. As well as providing the evening’s best gag—a man called Riches playing a banker—he brings a momentary touch of long-legged, vocally curdled menace to the scene. But of course he’s no match for Concepción. At the end Torquemada returns, is pleased to find his shop full of customers (there’s no end to his dimness), and joins everyone to sing “in the pursuit of love there comes a moment when the muleteer has his turn.” It’s a fun ending to an amusing production that deftly negotiates the pitfalls in this brilliant but problematic piece.
It’s a difficult opera to get right. Overplay the bawdry and you risk coarseness. Understate it, and things become anodyne. Medcalf, however, gets the balance between smut and sophistication more or less spot on, as Catherine Backhouse’s Concepción delivers double entendres aplenty direct to camera, while Ross Ramgobin’s strapping Ramiro hauls around the clocks in which Elgan Llŷr Thomas’ callow Gonzalve and Ashley Riches’ supercilious Inigo are hidden. Toledo is represented by a print of El Greco’s view of the city hung on the shop walls. Medcalf makes it very clear by the end that cuckolded Torquemada (Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts) will be more than able to profit financially from his wife’s indiscretions.
Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts is the nervy, not-quite-with-it Torquemada. Elgan Llŷr Thomas brings a bright, healthy tenor to poet-about-town Gonzalve. Ashley Riches’ supercilious Don Inigo is perfectly realised, and rising baritone Ross Ramgobin makes an utterly winning Ramiro. Meanwhile, Catherine Backhouse’s Concepción is nobody’s fool: rather, everyone else is hers. This is another creditable lockdown achievement from Grange Park Opera.
The four-star rating is thoroughly earned, however, not only by the five soloists who excel in vocal and comic presence but also by the resourcefulness with which Medcalf and cinematographer Daniel Zafer bring the tale to filmic life. Shooting over five days last month in the cramped confines of a real-life shop, Howard Walwyn Fine Antique Clocks of Kensington Church Street, they achieve near-miracles of invention while editor Ben Willis almost convinced me that two grown men could fit inside grandfather clocks.
This is the latest in the company’s unflagging programme of free online entertainment during the pandemic, invariably delivered with an entertaining twist. The novelty here is that Ravel’s comic tale of a clockmaker’s wife who conceals her lovers in his grandfather clocks has been filmed in a real-life antique clock shop. Director Stephen Medcalf has devised a witty “staging”, which neatly gets around any logistical problems (he was lucky that the owner was apparently happy to have his grandfather clocks carried around by one of the singers).
Medcalf and his company hit every beat with clarity and charm, while Chris Hopkins, playing Ravel’s score at the piano (there’s also a trumpet, briefly, plus a few castanets and chimes for emphasis) fills each passing moment with lightly worn sensuality and precision tooled wit. No-one’s really a villain in this piece – whose subject, surely, is the joy of life and the unquenchable sweetness of the moment, even as clocks tick onwards on every side. Ramiro can’t believe his luck, Concepción hasn’t mussed her hair, and the two frustrated suitors have at least acquired a couple of highly collectable timepieces. Even Torquemada gets his sandwich.
Stephen Medcalf’s direction, brilliantly filmed and edited for the small screen, is a delight, from the opening shots of Walwyn’s shop and its tintinnabulating clocks to the concluding quintet in which we’re advised, ‘Where lovers are concerned, it’s only the effective one who really counts. Game, set and match, then, to the man from UPS.