Leonard Slatkin and Orchestra National de Lyon perform Ravel’s ‘L’heure espagnole’

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3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Maurice Ravel
LABELS: Naxos
ALBUM TITLE: Ravel
WORKS: L’heure espagnole; Don Quichotte à Dulcinée
PERFORMER: Isabelle Druet, Marc Barrard, Nicolas Courjal, François Le Roux, Luca Lombardo, Frédéric Antoun; Orchestre National de Lyon/Leonard Slatkin
CATALOGUE NO: Naxos 8.660337

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An audio-only recording of L’heure espagnole is an interesting proposition. Ravel’s opera of ennui and lust in a Spanish clockmaker’s shop is a farce on a classically French subject: the cinq à sept affair. Deprived of the fun of watching Concepción’s suitors hiding in two clocks and being carried upstairs by Ramiro, the muleteer with the ‘biceps qui dépassent tous mes concepts’, you can only marvel at the wit of Franc-Nohain’s libretto (not included here) and the meticulous insouciance of Ravel’s orchestration.

Something strange happens in Leonard Slatkin’s recording with Orchestre National de Lyon. While the sound is exquisitely clear and the playing suave from the musky clarinets and ticking clocks of the opening to the sudden flush of hot-to-trot harps, the characterisations are muddled. No complaints about Isabelle Druet, who captures Concepción’s impatience impeccably and gets to deliver 20th-century opera’s sexiest line (‘Sans horloge!’) when she finally sees which man is best placed to deliver what she needs.

Luca Lombardo is an ideally knowing Torquemada, perfectly aware of his wife’s roving eye. But Marc Barrard’s Ramiro sounds too avuncular and too similar to Nicolas Courjal’s Don Iñigo, and instead of sounding ridiculous Frédéric Antoun’s Gonzalve sounds incredibly seductive. There are also ensemble problems in the final quintet that I would not expect to hear in live performance, much less on a recording.

The bonus item, Don Quichotte à Dulcinée (1933), stylishly delivered by François Le Roux, is a late and relatively rarely recorded work that might just swing the deal.

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Anna Picard