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Review: L’heure Espagnole – Grange Park Opera

Published on: 24 Mar, 2021
Updated on: 24 Mar, 2021

Kensington High Street becomes the setting for Grange Park Opera’s latest online production – Image GPA

By Alice Fowler

One of the compensations of lockdown – yes, there have been one or two – has been the proliferation of superb musical and theatrical performances free to view online. 

A pioneer of this generous approach has been Surrey’s Grange Park Opera. From their home at West Horsley Place, Grange Park has just released its 51st online production: a witty reboot of Maurice Ravel’s ‘opera comique’ L’heure espagnole.

Spanish time – Image GPA

For anyone unsure where to begin with opera – or unsure about its ticket prices – this is a wonderful place to start. L’heure espagnole (which loosely translates as ‘Spanish time’) is a bedroom farce, full of humour and innuendo. The risqué plot involves an unwitting clockmaker and his flighty, unfaithful wife, who experiences romantic complications one afternoon while her husband is out on municipal business. 

Eighteenth-century Toledo in Spain, where the work is set, is transposed to Kensington Church Street. This busy thoroughfare, linking Kensington High Street to Notting Hill, happens to be home to a world-renowned clock shop, Howard Walwyn Fine Antique Clocks. A cast of five singers performs in this small but atmospheric shop; sometimes hiding inside grandfather clocks, sometimes heaving them on to their shoulders and carrying them downstairs. 

This is opera sung in trainers, that does not take itself too seriously. Baritone Ross Ramgobin, as delivery driver Ramiro (a mule-driver in the original story), sports full UPS uniform specially shipped from America. The seductive Concepción (mezzo soprano Catherine Backhouse), the clockmaker’s wife, sings in expressive asides to camera as she tries to prevent her assorted lovers from crossing paths with one another. 

Mezzo soprano Catherine Backhouse plays the clockmaker’s wife – Image GPA

Tenor Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts gains sympathy as the deceived clockmaker Torquemada, while Welsh tenor Elgan Llyr Thomas convinces as the young poet Gonzalve and Ashley Riches as a powerful banker, Don Inigo. 

Ravel wrote L’heure espagnole in 1907. The opera was first performed in Paris in 1911 and came to Covent Garden in 1919. The soundtrack for this production was recorded at London’s Wigmore Hall. During filming, this audio soundtrack was played back, while singers mimed to their own recording. 

While lockdown brings constraints of every kind, there are silver linings, as director Stephen Medcalf explains: “I find myself with a setting infinitely more beautiful than anything that could be created on stage, with the added extra of the vibrant life of Kensington Church Street. When we film towards the street, there is a moving backdrop of buses, lorries, dog-walkers, cyclists, joggers, toddlers: all of human life.” 

For those who prefer their opera live, tickets are now on sale for Grange Park Opera’s 2021 season, running from 10 June – 18 July. 

The season covers a broad range of productions from the traditional, a rarity for connoisseurs, to a brand new – and highly topical – work. And then there’s an old favourite thrown in. 

The curtain-raiser is an unmissable production of Falstaff with opera superstar Bryn Terfel in the title role. Of equal significance and interest is the world premiere of The Life & Death of Alexander Litvinenko, the tragic story of the poisoning of the Russian dissident, rescheduled from the lost 2020 Season. 

Opera giant David Pountney directs Rimsky-Korsakov’s hidden gem, the composer’s first opera, Ivan the Terrible; while the world’s favourite opera, La Bohème, rounds off the season. 

To book, and to watch L’heure espagnole, see www.grangeparkopera.co.uk

You can watch L’heure espagnole right here…

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