Arts & Events


Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Monday September 26, 2016 - 10:15:00 AM

Alameda’s Island City Opera combined forces with Opera Academy of California to produce a single performance on Sunday September 25 at Alameda’s Elks Lodge of Francis Poulenc’s short operatic monologue La Dame de Monte Carlo and Maurice Ravel’s one-act opera L’Heure Espagnole. This was a felicitous pairing; and although both works were performed with only a piano as accompaniment for the singers, nonetheless, the excellence of the singers brought out all the nuances of these compositions sung in French. Opera Academy of California’s Artistic Director Yefim Maizel was responsible for the staging of both works on this program. 

In La Dame de Monte Carlo, soprano Julia Hunt Nielsen portrayed a woman “of a certain age,” as they say, who lets out all her emotions over betrayal by lovers, and takes out her anger in gambling at the famed casino in Monaco. Poulenc wrote this work in 1961 for French soprano Denise Duval and it premiered that same year at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. Poulenc set his music to a poetic text by Jean Cocteau that reminded the composer of happy years he had spent in Monte Carlo with fellow composer Georges Auric, “in the imperial shadow of Diaghilev.” The lady, down on her luck at the gaming tables, has been thrown out of the casino and feels that her life is not worth living. She sings of her humiliation at wearing always the same blouse drenched in sweat from anxiety. Julie Hunt Nielsen sang with clear French diction, a rich tone, and formidable expressivity. At the work’s end, when the lady jumps to her death into the Mediterranean Sea, Julie Hunt Nielsen turned her back to the audience and threw her hands up in despair as she shrieked the words “Monte Carlo.” Then the stage went black. 

After a short pause, Maurice Ravel’s comic opera L’Heure Espagnole was performed. The orchestral overture was played in a taped recording. Then the opera itself was accompanied on piano by Louise Costigan-Kerns, who also accompanied the Poulenc work. Ravel, whose mother was Basque, was greatly influenced by Spain and Spanish music. In this opera, set in Spain, Ravel uses a great many Spanish rhythms reminiscent of flamenco. Thus, stage director Yefim Maizel worked with Flamenco Consultant Stephanie Neira to produce what he called a “Flamencish opera.” Happily, the results were highly entertaining.  

L’Heure Espagnole is set in a watchmaker’s shop in a Spanish town. Torquemada, the watchmaker, has a beautiful wife, Concepcion, who is bored by her husband and this provincial town. At the opera’s beginning, Concepcion hastens to get her husband out of the shop by reminding him he has to rewind the municipal clocks. Her ulterior motive is that she has a rendez-vous with her lover, a young poet named Gonzalve. But a muleteer with a broken watch arrives and is told to wait by Torquemada, who goes off to attend to the town’s clocks. What will Concepcion do to get rid of this muleteer? 

The role of Concepcion was vivaciously sung by Solmaaz Adeli, a mezzo-soprano with a dark tonality that stood her well in this role that calls for her to be now shy, now coy, now again impatient and imperious. Incidentally, the great mezzo-soprano Isobel Leonard memorably sang the role of Concepcion last year in a concert production of L’Heure Espagnole at the San Francisco Symphony.  

In Alameda, tenor Jason Patrick ably sang the role of Torquemada, Concepcion’s watchmaker husband, who is a bit bedazzled and befuddled by his beautiful and conniving wife. Baritone Bradley Kynard sang the role of Ramiro, the muleteer, and Kynard was excellent as the brawny fellow who doesn’t feel comfortable talking with women. Tenor Taylor Rawley was the poet and would-be lover Gonzalve. This poet is forever spouting verses and never gets around to going to bed with Concepcion, much to her annoyance. Another would-be lover arrives, Don Inigo Gomez, a local banker who’s full of himself. Sung by baritone James McGoff, the banker thinks that because he’s rich Concepcion will welcome him to her bed. Instead, she hides both him and the poet in separate grandfather clocks, which she cajoles the brawny muleteer to carry upstairs to her bedroom, then back down again. Incidentally, the grandfather clocks in which hide the would-be but ill-fated lovers also give rise to a fine French pun that rhymes coocoo, as in a coocoo clock, and cocu, the French word for a cuckold.  

As Ramiro, the muleteer, baritone Bradley Kynard deftly portrayed the way this brawny fellow so impresses Concepcion with his strength that she ends up whisking him off to her bedroom for a quickie before her husband returns and while the poet and banker are holed up in grandfather clocks. The opera ends with all five singers joining in the refrain that “in pursuit of love the muleteer gets his turn.” It’s a slight work, admittedly; but L’Heure Espagnole is full of lively Spanish rhythms. In a production limited to a piano score, none of the rich orchestration for which Ravel is famous could be heard. Yefim Maizel compensated for this lack by emphasizing the rhythms that were conducive to flamenco-like dance movements by all the singers.