Two Superb New Recordings of a Ravel Operatic Masterpiece: 1. Stéphanie d’Oustrac Singing L’heure espagnole (with an alert Shéhérazade as bonus) 2. L’heure espagnole, with the magnificent Gaëlle Arquez

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Stéphanie d'Oustrac in the 2012 Glyndebourne production.

Stéphanie d’Oustrac in the 2012 Glyndebourne production.

Maurice Ravel, Shéhérazade and L’heure espagnole
Stuttgart Radio Orchestra, conducted by Stéphane Denève
SWRmusic 19016–66 minutes

Stéphanie d’Oustrac – Concepción
Jean-Paul Fouchécourt – Torquemada
Yann Beuron – Gonsalve
Alexandre Duhamel – Ramiro
Paul Gay – Don Iñigo Gomez

The two works on this CD make an apt and welcome pair. First we have Ravel’s sumptuous three-song cycle about the mysteries of love and fantasies of exotic lands. Then we have his one-act opera that takes place in a land that, to French people at the time, was beckoningly exotic, and whose title might be freely translated “The Nutty and Delightful Things That Can Happen in Spain in Just One Hour.” The opera presents some quick-moving events in the lives of a clockmaker’s wife and the four wildly different men with whom she is variously involved (one being her husband). The CD is officially vol. 4 of a series covering Ravel’s “orchestral works,” a phrase that here clearly means “works with orchestra.” (The two piano concertos and Tzigane are presumably scheduled for some future volume.) The Stuttgart orchestra plays very capably throughout, but the star of the CD is mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac. (See also the listing of her performances on Operabase.)

Opera lovers may remember d’Oustrac as the title character in the DVD of Lully’s Armide with William Christie and Les Arts Florissants. Her voice, as befits an experienced singer of early music, is firm and precise; her diction is wonderfully clear. True, it does not bloom as fully as that of some other singers who have recorded one or the other of these two pieces: for example, soprano Régine Crespin in her classic recording of Shéhérazade or Suzanne Danco in her two recordings of L’heure espagnole. A few of d’Oustrac’s loud high notes glare. But the compensations are numerous and gratifying. For example, in the first movement of the song cycle, d’Oustrac brings great variety to the list of foreign places and sights that the persona of the poem declares that s/he would love to visit (if only in the imagination). She brings tension and fear into the narration as the images move to include assassins and beheadings, yet without ever breaking the smoothness of the vocal line—quite an achievement!

The mezzo brings this same vocal mastery and keenness of characterization to the role of Concepción in L’heure espagnole. She differentiates wonderfully between moments when Concepción is addressing one of the other characters and when she is musing quietly to herself. She catches many glints of humor, not least in the frequent word-play. (One end-rhyme is as unlikely in English as in French: “biceps”/“concepts.”) D’Oustrac’s attention to the conversational nature of the words is further emphasized by her clear and natural-sounding pronunciation; the letter “r” is guttural, as one hears it in most of France, rather than rolled (or some say trilled) in an Italianate manner.

The four men sing extraordinarily well and—being, like d’Oustrac, native French-speakers—pronounce the sometimes rapid dialogue beautifully. Jean-Paul Fouchécourt, a renowned high tenor, limns the character of the clockmaker superbly. Yann Beuron and Paul Gay are careful to avoid caricature in roles that are patently ridiculous: as a result, their performances will hold up well to repeated hearings.

My one slight disappointment was with Alexandre Duhamel as Ramiro. This mule driver is supposed to sound tongue-tied and a bit naive, until he is alone and suddenly becomes (as the score prescribes) “dreamy” and even somewhat eloquent. Duhamel does sound quite sensitive in the latter passage, like a superb singer of art song. (Duhamel is indeed an experienced recitalist. The role of Ramiro, for high baritone, was originally sung by Jean Périer, Debussy’s first Pelléas.) But, up to that point, he is merely bland, as if not quite sure how to play a character who seems, to the other characters on stage, almost dim-witted. (The second new recording of this same opera, from Munich—see below—features Duhamel in the same role, and his reading is just that bit more specific.) Duhamel’s voice is not very different in sonority from that of Gay, the Don Iñigo, so a listener unfamiliar with the work may need to consult the libretto often.

Denève and the orchestra follow the singers every step of the way, or sometimes (as required) anticipate and guide them. One can sense the players’ enjoyment of numerous passages, such as the galumphing figure that repeatedly accompanies, in interestingly varied ways, the heavy-footed Ramiro (as he lugs grandfather clocks upstairs and down) or the long trombone glissando that comments on the discomfort of overweight Don Iñigo, stuck inside a big clock.

The recording was made at two performances on successive nights, presumably done “in concert” (without costumes and sets). The audience is extremely quiet until the end, when they erupt in applause, cheers, laughter, lively conversation, and some cries of “Olé!”

With such an intricate and quickly moving score, there are bound to be passages that are done a little differently on other fine recordings. Critics have long praised the recordings of L’heure espagnole conducted by Ansermet and Cluytens (both monophonic). Apparently the stereo recordings conducted by Maazel, Previn, Slatkin, and Armin Jordan all have some particularly admirable features, as does a 1960 mono recording conducted by Bruno Maderna. (Some of these recordings can be sampled, with pleasure and profit, on YouTube.) I can attest that the very first recording of all—conducted by Georges Truc in 1929—retains special charms.

Not least, the properly pompous-sounding Don Iñigo in that historic recording is Hector Dufranne, who was the original Golaud in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, 27 years earlier! The 1929 rendering of the opera’s concluding Quintet, brimming with character, can be heard on YouTube. For contrast, here’s the same number in the recording under review—more refined in vocal production, and less broad in its comic inflections.

In short, this new recording can stand proudly next to any of the aforementioned. And it comes with, as a bonus, D’Oustrac’s captivating recording of Shéhérazade.

The booklet contains the texts, in French only, and an informative essay in German and in what is rather Germanic-sounding English. (Some long sentences should have been broken up.) The booklet misspells the name of the renowned mezzo-soprano Jeanne Hatto, who gave the first performance of Shéhérazade.

There have been two videorecordings of the opera from Glyndebourne. One was released on videotape in 1987 and is now on YouTube. The other, a 2012 performance on DVD, has been highly praised by critics and online purchasers. D’Oustrac and Gay perform the roles that they sing on the present CD (Immediately above, you will see them in that same final Quintet: Gay, as Gomez, is the man in the business suit), and the DVD also includes Ravel’s other, and equally imaginative, short opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges.

 

Gaëlle Arquez

Gaëlle Arquez

Maurice Ravel, L’heure espagnole and Emmanuel Chabrier, España
Gaëlle Arquez – Concepción
Mathias Vidal – Torquemada
Julien Behr – Gonsalve
Alexandre Duhamel – Ramiro
Lionel Lhote – Don Iñigo Gomez
Munich Radio Orchestra, conducted by Asher Fisch
BR-Klassik 900317–56 minutes

The new recording, from Munich, of Ravel’s first opera (in one act), has features in common with the one from Stuttgart reviewed above: the singers are all native French-speakers, the orchestra is associated with a German radio channel, we are hearing an actual performance (or in this case an edited version from several performances, in April 2016), and the recording is released by the orchestra itself or its institutional parent.

The results are much the same as in Stuttgart, except this time even better. The Concepción, Gaëlle Arquez, has a fuller voice than did Stéphanie d’Oustrac, yet is at least as alert to the quick shifts in the character’s moods and impulses.Here is the character’s one extended solo: “Oh! l’impitoyable aventure.” 
I hope we get to hear Arquez in more recordings. Here she is, acting and singing superbly, in the final moments of a live Carmen performance at Bregenz:

Mathias Vidal is a real heroic light tenor, if that phrase makes any sense. (I’d like to hear him sing Idomeneo!) His reading offers quite a contrast to the thinnish character-tenor sound produced on the Stuttgart recording—very effectively and skillfully, I admit—by Jean-Paul Fouchécourt. Alexandre Duhamel repeats his Ramiro, now conveying more of what the seemingly dim-witted mule-driver is experiencing. Julien Behr is a marvelous Gonsalve, singing with a bit more youthful flair and energy than the fine Yann Beuron. And Lionel Lhote, as Don Iñigo Gomez, points his lines more emphatically than Paul Gay did in the Stuttgart CD, yet without ever sacrificing vocal beauty.

The clear yet resonant acoustics of the Prinzregententheater in Munich add to the pleasure. (On this wonderful smallish theater, see my review of Wagner’s Lohengrin here.)I imagine that much of the extra detail, dramatic impulse, and seeming spontaneity in this recording comes from the conductor, Asher Fisch, who has conducted extensively at the Israeli Opera, Seattle Opera, La Scala, and the Vienna Volksoper.

In short, this is now my favorite recording of Ravel’s scrumptious and witty 50-minute work. Essay, plot summary (with helpful track indications), and info on the orchestra and conductor. But nothing on the singers and no libretto. Fortunately, the French text and good translations can be found online, if one hunts around.

The opera is followed by Chabrier’s España, an appropriate pendant and always welcome, especially when performed so spiffily. (Also to be heard on YouTube.) The microphone placement, though, seems less felicitous than in the opera: quiet string passages are hard to hear, yet drum whacks are over-resonant.

The above reviews are lightly revised versions of ones that first appeared in American Record Guide and appear here by kind permission.

About Ralph P. Locke

Ralph P. Locke is a professor emeritus of musicology at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music (located in Rochester, New York, USA). He is the founding editor of Eastman Studies in Music, a book series published by the University of Rochester Press. His writings include Musical Exoticism: Images and Reflections (2009) and Music and the Exotic from the Renaissance to Mozart (2015), his most recent (both Cambridge University Press). The first is now available in paperback, and the second soon will be (and is also available as an e-book). His essays and reviews can be read in American Record Guide and at OperaToday and MusicologyNow. His previous pieces for New York Arts were on slavery in Mozart’s operas and on a 3-CD set of surprisingly inventive works by Marie Jaëll, a major composer and pianist closely associated with both Saint-Saëns and Liszt. Six of his articles have won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in writing about music.

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