Wolf Trap Opera and the NOI+Festival’s Engaging L’Heure Espagnole

A lot had to come together for the semi-staged performance of Maurice Ravel’s opera, L’heure Espagnole on Saturday night, a lot more than you might realize.  The National Orchestral Institute had to bring about eighty (by my guess) of the most promising young musicians in the country to University of Maryland, College Park for a month of training and performances at the Clarice under the aegis of the National Orchestral Institute + Festival program.  Wolf Trap Opera had to bring in a new class of the most promising operatic emerging artists for their Filene Artists summer program at Wolf Trap.  Wolf Trap Opera does not select the operas to be presented until they know the voices and talent that will be available for that year.  Then finally, the opera and program to be presented had to be chosen and the myriad logistics of presenting a collaborative opera production worked out.  The end result was a delightful evening of opera by Ravel and suites from operas by Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss.  I love it when a plan comes together, especially if it involves opera.

Joshua Conyers as Ramiro, the muleteer (standing), Ian Koziara as Torquemada, the clock maker (seated), and Taylor Raven as Concepcion, the clockmaker’s wife (lighted in back). Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Joshua Conyers as Ramiro, the muleteer (standing), Ian Koziara as Torquemada, the clock maker (seated), and Taylor Raven as Concepcion, the clockmaker’s wife (lighted in back). Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The NOI + Festival orchestra opened the program with “Four Sea Interludes” from Peter Grimes (1945) by composer Benjamin Britten.  The orchestra was led by Conductor Ward Stare, Musical Director of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, who was assisted by Joel Ayau, a frequent contributor to Washington National Opera.  Peter Grimes, perhaps Britten’s most popular opera, is a psychological drama of vigilante justice in a small fishing village.  This is a musically diverse piece, modern in containing elements of dissonance, raucous in places as the music is tossed around from section to section of the orchestra, much like the sea can toss boats about.  The four interludes are titled Dawn, Sunday Morning, Moonlight, and Storm, with the titles being somewhat descriptive of the music, especially Storm.  I suspect this would be a challenging piece for even a seasoned orchestra of professionals, and NOI+Festival’s young performers displayed impressive artistry and came together beautifully, with an especially impressive orchestra-wide flourish to end the Storm interlude. 

While a bit of shuffling about was taking place to rearrange some instruments and players for the next piece, Conductor Ward Stare gave insightful comments about the different sections of the evening’s program.  The second offering of the night was “Suites from Der Rosenkavalier”.  The suite was assembled by Strauss himself combining different excerpts from the opera. Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose, 1911) is one of Strauss’ most popular operas.  The story revolves around Marschallin, a middle-aged married woman having an affair with a young man, Octavian.  As the story progresses, she has to face the realization that she must give up Octavian who has fallen in love with the young Sophie, fiancé of Marschallin’s cousin, Baron Ochs.  The opera is amusing and sentimental, and the music by Strauss is lush and beautiful, complete with waltzes, what you might expect if you were attending an important concert in 19th century Vienna.  It was quite a contrast with the opening interludes by Britten, and surely, gave the youthful players a chance to master a different area of their repertoire.  To those of us in the audience, it was sheer pleasure.  As applause was given for each section of the program, conductor Ware charmingly recognized first the solo players in the piece and then each section of the orchestra by having them stand.  The applause was both appreciative and heartfelt.

left: Gonsalve hidden inside a clock and played by Joshua Lovell is carted off by Ramiro played by Joshua Conyers. What? You don’t see the clock? right: Torquemada played by Ian Koziara tries to sell Don Iñigo the clock he is stuck in. Sometimes suspending disbelief involves seeing things that aren’t there. It’s fun; remember when you were little. Photos by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Each of the opening works were about twenty-five minutes.  The forty-five minute L’heure Espagnole (The Spanish Hour, 1911) constituted the second half of the program after intermission.  To be honest, I did not know that Ravel composed operas until I saw the WTO season announcement.  And in fact, he only composed two; he also composed a fifty-minute opera titled “L’enfant et les sortiléges (The Child and the Sorceries) which tells the tale of a mischievous child who after a tantrum of breaking items in his room must face the things as they come to life to confront him.  L’heure espagnole is a more adult tale.  In fact, though the opera score was completed by 1907, the director of the Opéra-Comique delayed it’s production until 1911 due to his concerns about the risqué storyline, though tame by today’s standards and totally in keeping with what we have come to expect of the French, but then…the story is set in Spain.  For the libretto, Ravel used an eponymous play by Franc-Nohain, making only a few changes to the drawing room comedy.  The story takes place in a clock repair shop.  The muleteer Ramiro arrives to have his watch repaired by the clockmaker Torquemada.  Torquemada’s wife Concepcion reminds her husband that the hour approaches that he must leave each week to service the clocks in the town, a time when she has regular male visitors unbeknownst to her husband; Torquemada leaves them both to await his return.  First, her current lover, the poet Gonsalve, arrives followed soon by another suitor, the banker Don Iñigo Gomez.  To keep them separate and on point, Concepcion has the muleteer Ramiro cart clocks hiding her suitors to her bedroom, offstage.  While Concepcion wants to get down to business of making the most of the hour, Gonsalve becomes self-absorbed creating poetic lines, and Don Iñigo gets stuck in a clock, leaving only the muleteer, who has sudden appeal to the practical-minded Concepcion.  You can see the comedic potential, and the opera ends with everybody happy, except perhaps for the Parisian censors (in case you are wondering, Torquemada was happy from the sale of two clocks).  It was pointed out in the pre-opera discussion that Ravel composed the rare opera where female sexuality is accepted, and the heroine does not get killed off.  Who knew this was once frowned on in France?

Concepcion (Taylor Raven) decides that in love, it is the muleteer’s turn (Joshua Conyers) - regards to Boccacio. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Concepcion (Taylor Raven) decides that in love, it is the muleteer’s turn (Joshua Conyers) - regards to Boccacio. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

L’heure espagnole does not have big show-stopping arias and much of the singing is recitative.  The vocals are mainly intended to carry the plot, not delve deeply into the emotional life of its characters.  Wolf Trap Opera’s Filene Artists had the right voice types and did a fine job making this semi-staged version work. Mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven who played Concepcion had the only challenging role, to exude sexuality carefully while maneuvering the players around to achieve her aim; she sang beautifully and did a credible job of acting for a young performer.  The other characters are one-dimensional stereotypes that serve to frustrate and finally satisfy Concepcion as she struggles to find the release she seeks.  Joshua Conyers, winner of the recent Annapolis Opera vocal competition, played Ramiro and shone with his warm baritone; he gave us a simple, happy Ramiro.  The fine young tenor Ian Koziara, who starred to rave reviews in last year’s Idomeneo, presented Torquemada as a presence as functional as his clocks.  The comedic foil and primary source of Concepcion’s exasperation was Gonzalve played by tenor Joshua Lovell.  He possesses a striking tenor worth hearing more of and appeared amusingly self-absorbed in his poetic creations.  Bass-baritone Calvin Griffin took a bit to warm up, but soon settled in to display his deep voice and give us the officious, self-important Don Iñigo.  The opera ends with an ensemble of all the characters that was a highlight of the performance and cemented the happy ending.  Director Emily Cuk did a fine job of staging the action through and around the orchestra.  Lighting was effectively handled by Christopher Brusberg. Kristen Ahern designed the costumes and a special thanks to production designer C. Murdock Lucas for the giant stack of clocks forming the portal to the off-stage bedroom.

The finale quintet shows each player content, especially Concepcion (Taylor Raven), in line with Don Iñigo (Calvin Griffith), Torquemada (Ian Koziara), Gonsalve (Joshua Lovell), and Ramiro (Joahua Conyers. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The finale quintet shows each player content, especially Concepcion (Taylor Raven), in line with Don Iñigo (Calvin Griffith), Torquemada (Ian Koziara), Gonsalve (Joshua Lovell), and Ramiro (Joahua Conyers. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The sixth major character in this story is the orchestra and Ravel’s music, which joins in propelling the farce forward.  Every action and emotion is painted with musical color, sometimes to the point of causing me to want to pause the characters and focus on the music.  The sound of clocks and metronomes added to the coloring.  Sometimes the music added to the drama, and sometimes it performed as a comedic foil generating musical slapstick in the background.  I’d also like to hear this score as a suite.  Conductor Stare led the NOI+Festival orchestra through a marvelous performance.  The opera is written for a chamber-sized orchestra, but NOI gave us a full orchestra, and the semi-staging of the opera allowed the orchestra to also be on the stage instead of being in a pit; this aspect enhanced the emotional impact of the performance which led to thunderous applause at the end.

The  L’heure espagnole  creative team, conductor, cast, and orchestra taking bows. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

The L’heure espagnole creative team, conductor, cast, and orchestra taking bows. Photo by Rob Wallace/MIndful Photo; courtesy of Wolf Trap Opera.

Kudos to Wolf Trap Opera and the National Orchestra Institute for providing us with such an engaging and enjoyable evening of classical music and opera performed by some of the best young talent in the US.  These two organizations complement each other beautifully and their collaboration is to be encouraged, and then enjoyed.

The Fan Experience: L’heure espagnole was a single performance, but part of a triple bill for Wolf Trap Opera.  On the same night the Filene Artists back at The Barns in Wolf Trap were staging Merlin’s Island and The Emperor of Atlantis.  The twin bill at The Barns continues on June 26, 28, 30.  The National Orchestral Institute + Festival orchestra concludes its season on June 29 with a performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony.  The Dekelboum Concert Hall in the Clarice is a fine venue; the clarity of the sound is very good, and I love the free parking after hours and weekends at the Clarice.

Getting to the Clarice from Tyson’s Corner is often problematic due to traffic on the beltway, even on the weekend.  Traffic issues early Saturday evening made me fifteen minutes late to the pre-opera talk.  A trip that should have taken 35 minutes took a little over an hour.  The pre-opera talk was a discussion panel that included Amanda Consol from the UMD’s Maryland Opera Studio, Morgan Brophy from Wolf Trap Opera, and Emily Cuk who directed L’heure Espagnole.  I enjoyed the comments I heard on how the program came to be, interactions between WTO and NOI, and challenges encountered.