Written within ten years of each other, these two one-act operas by Maurice Ravel and Giacomo Puccini provide a brilliant account of the patchwork of musical aesthetics prevailing at the beginning of the 20th century and represent two very personal and accomplished re-appropriations of Italian opera buffa. L’Heure espagnole is Ravel’s first completed opera and Gianni Schicchi is Puccini’s last: he died before completing Turandot. A youthful work and something of a manifesto for the French composer, who was only thirty-two when he undertook it; a mature work for the Italian master, who was sixty years of age at the first performance in 1918.
“The most complicated thing is simplicity, and simplicity is a divinity that all artists who believe must celebrate.” Puccini
L’Heure espagnole was conceived as a musical offering by Ravel to his father, whose days, in 1907, were evidently numbered. But the project was delayed and death intervened ineluctably the following year. After numerous setbacks, the work was finally performed in 1911 at the Opéra Comique. For the libretto of his “musical comedy”, Ravel chose a vaudeville play by Franc-Nohain which had been a triumph at the Théâtre de l’Odéon in 1904. For personal reasons first of all: the title brings together from the outset the backgrounds of his parents: that of a Swiss engineer fascinated by all types of mechanisms, and that of a girl from the Basque country brought up in Madrid. And then for aesthetic reasons: Franc-Nohain was at that time a member of the non-conformist circle known as Les Amorphes, alongside Jules Renard et Alfred Jarry. When he began work on the composition, Ravel was a member of the “Société des Apaches”, which included Erik Satie, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, Paul Valéry, Igor Stravinsky and Manuel de Falla; they also intended to rejuvenate the French artistic scene, notably by combatting the excesses of symbolism.
The opening bars of L’Heure espagnole sound therefore like a prosaic manifesto: metronomes represent the ticking of the clocks in Torquemada’s workshop. The orchestra has been supplemented with unusual instruments – a celeste, bells, a whip and, in the bottom register, a sarrusophone, similar to a contrabassoon. An exploration of timbres and ways of playing is also perceptible: the “brassy” mode of the horn imitating “an automat playing the trumpet”; the crystalline sounds of the celeste evoking the magic of the clock mechanisms and trombone glissandi heralding the farce in the offing.
Gianni Schicchi, first performed seven years after L’Heure espagnole, seems considerably less innovative by comparison. It is, however, a work apart within Puccini’s output. This short opera is in fact the last part of a tryptich that includes the sombre, verismo Il Tabarro and the severe Suor Angelica. Then, in the summer of 1917, Puccini wrote the following to Forzano, his librettist, “I feel the need to amuse myself”, as if, like Giuseppe Verdi, his model, he felt an overwhelming urge to try his hand at comedy. Of verismo, from which he completely frees himself here, he retains only the one-act structure, some borrowings from popular music and an unmitigated exposure of human cynicism. Without renouncing the use of bel canto, that most Italian of arts, of which the aria “O mio babbino caro” remains one of the most accomplished examples, Puccini takes particular care with the orchestration, rendering the music not so much an illustrative element but rather a means of supporting the creative freedom of the performers.
What remains of the opera buffa tradition that these two works claim to belong to? First of all, the choice of hero – modest and undervalued – the muleteer in Ravel and an upstart in Puccini: heroes with whom, in the closing bars, the audience is invited to side. Secondly, the use of musical elements borrowed from popular repertoire: Spanish dances in Ravel, Tuscan melodies for Puccini. But the real tour de force resides in the subtlety with which music serves humour, a return to the very essence of opera buffa.
With a final, albeit involuntary, wink, L’Heure espagnole joyously echoes Puccini’s personal history: Elvira Gemignani, who became his wife, was already married when he met her and their romance blossomed whilst he was giving her “piano lessons” during her husband’s frequent absences…