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UW Opera: "L'Heure Espagnole" and "Les mamelles de Tiresias"

Ravel: L'Heure Espagnole

Torquemada: Brian Hatfield, tenor
Ramiro: Sam Handley, baritone
Concepción: Melanie Kuolt, soprano
Gonzalve: Stephen Rodrigues-Pavao, tenor
Don Inigo Gomez: Aaron Larson, bass

Poulenc: Les mamelles de Tirésias

Director: Sam Handley, baritone
Thérèse: Jamie Van Eyck, soprano
Husband: Daniel Gallagher, tenor
UW Chamber Orchestra
James Smith, conductor


The University Opera's season-closing offering consisted of two 20th-century French works, Ravel's L'heure espagnole (1911) and Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias (1947).

Directed by William Farlow and conducted by James Smith, the most innovative feature was placing the large orchestra on stage, behind the settings. The Union Theater's pit can hold at most only 30 players, far too few for the lush orchestrations of both works. A light scrim separating the orchestra from the action permitted a break in conceptual space while allowing the sound -- very nicely played, too -- into the auditorium. TV monitors on either side afforded the actors a view of the conductor.

The Spanish Hour (or Spanish Time) is a racy farce set in 18th-century Spain. The clockmaker Torquemada's weekly duties include adjusting all the town clocks. This provides his wife Concepción with the opportunity to entertain paramours, which include the shy muleteer Ramiro, the loquacious poet Gonzalve and the foppish banker Don Inigo Gomez.

Two large cabinet clocks provide convenient hiding places for the latter two, while the very strong Ramiro shuffles first one clock then the other back and forth between the shop and the somewhat frantically indecisive Concepción's bedroom. The outcome is that Ramiro gets his turn by sheer persistence.

It's lovely music, with the best singing by soprano Melanie Kuolt (Concepción) and baritone Sam Handley (Ramiro).

The Breasts of Tirésias uses Poulenc's own libretto based on the 1917 play by Guillaume Apollinaire, which for all its surrealities rests on the need to repopulate France after the ravages of World War, so its general theme is: make babies, which the Director (Handley) explains directly to the audience in the prologue.

But it's also about gender: Thérèse or Tirésias (soprano Jamie Van Eyck) cuts off her breasts and becomes a man; her husband (tenor Daniel Gallagher) promptly bears lots of children in a single day. There's a huge cast of small parts, much witty nonsense, and in the end Thérèse becomes a woman again and is reunited with her husband.

Curtis Phillips' sets, especially for the Poulenc, were perky and fun. Alexandra Rodinski's lighting was minimal but generally effective.

Building an effective universty opera program is an ongoing and still elusive goal, beset mostly by the paucity of good vocal students. Recent additions to the voice faculty should help, and certainly Farlow and Smith are strong assets. But we still have mostly verve where solid technique should be. The audience was enthusiastic nevertheless.

Isthmus, May, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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