The Grimeborn opera season at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston has seen double bills from Opera Alegria before. This year they have twinned two very different one-act operas – Donizetti’s Rita and Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole. Rita was written in 1841 but not performed until 1860 after the composer’s death. Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole was first performed in 1911 some fifty years later. While the contrast in styles is somewhat jarring, the common themes in the subject matter gives the pairing a hint of programming logic.
Alegria’s Rita is set in a bar in the Costa del Sol in the 1970s. Rita owns the bar and rather enjoys bossing her useless husband around. But a character from her past turns up and she has to decide where her real loyalties lie. In Ravel’s piece, Concepcion is married to an elderly clockmaker and she packs him off for an hour each week to allow her time to entertain her lovers. However, her poet amour is more interested in couplets than coupling and she has to find a better way to use her hour.
The first piece is set in a shabby semi-realistic Spanish Bar. Poor Rita, well played – and sung – with take-no-prisoners charm by Naomi Kilby, spends the whole piece in a quilted house coat that doesn’t look very Malaga to me. Her useless husband, played by tenor Richard Belshaw, seemed a little under-prepared for the role but came into his own in the final scene when he was permitted a few moments of reprisal against his unkind wife. The interloper from Rita’s old life in Essex, played in fine wide-boy style by Christopher Faulkner, provided the spark that lit up the action and had the best jokes in the show.
The Ravel opera was delivered in a style that proved a total contrast to the first piece. The cast appear in white masks painted with clock faces and the prelude is accompanied by percussion sounds that represent the ticking of clocks. As Concepcion’s frustration at the failure of her lover to live up to her expectations grows, and her admirers have to hide in the clocks to avoid detection, the masks reappear to represent the clocks – though Ramiro, played with sexy innocence by Thorvald Blough, has to carry them around bodily – a fine display of lifting and singing! Alicia Gurney as Concepcion sings with splendid style and struts her man-eater stuff with lipstick so red that it could have ignited the set.
The real problem with both pieces came from the need to reduce the scores for performance by a single piano. Without the texture of the original orchestral scores to support them, the burden on the singers becomes intense and in such a small auditorium the occasional flaws in tone and breath control are exaggerated. Even so, the audibility of every word and the chance to make every joke count more than compensated for the shortcomings and the fine performances of Naomi Kilby and Alicia Gurney made this a worthy addition to the Grimeborn repertoire.