L'Heure Espagnole and Gianni Shicchi

Review by Polly Hope

The Royal Opera House Convent Garden London. Spring MMV11

Twice in a week to the Royal Opera house and my goodness what a contrast. These two are absolute winners. I want to go over and over again. Okay, so they aren't 'modern operas'. So what, they were once, and only a generation ago. Well it must have been my grandmother at the Puccini premiere. Operas that are a delight, the characters are real people whom one sympathises with. The music of both pieces enhances the stories and completely melds with the action. The words are audible, in French in L'HEURE and Italian in SCHICCHI.

In both these works you can follow the story from the music and the action even if you don't know the two languages.

First up was L'HEURE ESPAGNOLE, Ravel's delicious and tender story of a clock maker having horns put on him by his wife. Three lovers, two clocks and a lot of climbing in and out of clock cases and carrying them around.

On entering the auditorium one is confronted by a magnificent drop curtain, a huge picture of a pair of breasts in a pink spotted bra. An enormous Allen Jones. Very well done. When this rises we see a tiny shop at the back of the stage, which during the overture rolls forward. A perfect Spanish shop, roses, huge ones, on the wall paper, an oval plate glass window, [very Gaudi,] a glass counter with glass display cases beneath it and everything full of lit up ticking clocks, he walls the counter the tables and the floor where the two huge grandfathers stand.

John Macfarlane is the designer. He is brilliant and has the most enormous sense of style and period. I suppose this interior is maybe late 1950s, but I could be now in an old part of Barcelona.

The costumes of Nicky Gillibrand are delightful, stylish and not silly, even Conception's is right, gaudy off course but not silly or even tarty.

All the singers are good, singers really have leant how to act in the last couple of decades apart from slimming down. Christine Rice a sparkling passionate Conception, all big tits, high heels and swirling skirt. The men are great as well. The orchestra plays like angels, but then they have Antonio Pappano driving them along. For me Pappano can make no mistakes, he understands what the music is supposed to do in opera. L'Heure is not a work I've ever liked much but here it is all new and sparkling and tender and joyful. Pappano makes you understand why Ravel had such a reputation for orchestration. For the first time it seems I hear all the instruments, each one giving voice in its own language Lovely stuff.

Richard Jones directs, he also usually comes up shining; the action is clear and witty. Such a team of music director, director and designer is pretty unique. I would go a long way always to see this combination.

The second half of the evening is just as good. Until now I've disliked Gianni Schicchi as a work. Okay, the story did come from Boccacio, but that isn't enough to excuse it. Now the invincible team have moved the action to Florence in the late 1950s. I can remember hotel rooms just like this when I first went to Italy. I only have to look at the veneered furniture and awful flowered wallpaper, to be able once again to smell the terrible loos and the garlicky sweaty people on the buses to be back in those odiferous days.

Byrn Terfel has really learned to act and plays Gianni as a slobby overweight white van man. Hilarious. Joan Rodgers as his mum is perfect, wiley and pushy and tiny. The trio of conductor, director and designer have made this a poignant as well as a fall about laughing piece. Congratulations to everyone. This time the audience left with a song in their hearts. Such an evening restores my faith in opera.

I want to go and see these two one act works again and again. Go if you can bribe a ticket from someone. I expect the bribe will have to be quite large.

Polly Hope. London.