Jul 24, 2013

The Spanish Hour: Opera in Underwear

I don't usually like opera, but I like Maurice Ravel's L'heure espagnole, or The Spanish Hour (1904).  It's short, I can understand the language, and it has a strong gay subtext.

Like a lot of Spanish literature, or at least what the French thought of Spanish literature, it's about adultery.

Clockmaker Torquemada goes away for the day, leaving his wife Conception eager to find men to share her bed.  First she sets out to seduce the foppish poet Gonzalve, but he's more interested in composing poetry and complementing her "fabulous" home.  Then the blustering banker Don Inigo, but he's more interested in business and propriety.

Both end up hiding in clocks.

The muscular muleteer Ramiro keeps stopping by to see if he can get his watch fixed, but Conception doesn't think about flirting with him because he "doesn't know what to say to women."

Torquemada returns, leaving Conception unsatisified, but, she reasons, she can try Ramiro tomorrow.

The gay connection:

1. The staging turns everyone into clockwork, their actions, gestures, and thoughts not their own, but parroted for the purpose of the plot.  Sort of like mouthing the words of heterosexism in Leonard Bernstein's Mass.
2.  The foppish, gay-coded Gonzalve stands in for Ravel, who lived for his art and was "secretly gay."
3. In the performance I saw, Gonzalve and Don Inigo end up in their underwear.

Gonzalve, a tenor, is usually played by slight performers, such as Yann Beuron, Thierry Dran, and Elliot Madore (top photo).

Ramiro has been played by some of the most muscular baritones in the business, including Franck Ferrari, Alek Shrader (left), and Christopher Maltman (below).

It's not performed often, but you can get a copy of the 2004 telecast from the Parisian National Opera, or the Glyndebourne Festival version (2009) with backgrounds by children's author Maurice Sendak.