How did your recording of Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole, which has won Limelight’s Opera Recording of the Year 2017, come about?
Well, the way I like it, which means it was just a concert. In Munich, they record everything because it’s a radio orchestra and so everything being broadcast goes online. But the Tonmeister – who’s the son of Peter Schreier, mind you – he said, “This is too good, this is too good!” We had a very, very clean version from the concert and the general and they asked did I mind if they come out with this CD! I listened to the recording of the general and I thought, “Mmm, that’s really good, maybe this can happen.” So basically, it’s a live performance, with a few corrections from the general rehearsal.
Asher Fisch. Photo © Nik Babic
What attracts you to this piece in particular?
Oh, tons of things. First of all, as an opera person, you always love to get to a corner that is not so touched. And especially if it’s humoristic. I love Falstaff, I love Gianni Schicchi and for the same reason, I love L’Heure Espagnole, because it’s fascinating to see how these very serious and deep composers deal with humour and how they try to apply what they know from serious opera. That makes it so much more interesting than, let’s say a Rossini opera. That’s not to run down Rossini operas, but especially in this piece it’s more interesting because it has so many layers, and there’s so much craft. It’s really like Gianni Schicchi – which by the way was an inspiration for Ravel – where you see a great, great master trying to do something a little bit offish.
L’Heure Espagnole often plays second fiddle to Ravel’s other one-act opera, L’Enfant et les Sortilèges. Do you think there’s a reason why it’s sometimes side-lined?
I always thought that the first opera I’ll do from the two will be L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, for the reason you’re mentioning, which is that somebody would want to do it, and because it’s done more. I think there’s a bit of a mundane reason for this – L’Enfant et les Sortilèges works very well in college situations and in studios, so it’s known more, and singers know it more. You know that there’s a chamber version for L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, so a touring company with small forces can take it on – it’s just more practical somehow. L’Heure Espagnole is much harder to cast. You need very good singers and you cannot do it with students – I mean you can, but it’s not going to be on the right level. Whereas L’Enfant et les Sortilèges can be done with students I think, very effectively.
What do you think are the most interesting ways that Ravel brings colour and comedy into the music?
The humour is far subtler in the orchestra than it is with the words, so basically, the first level of the comedy is completely in the text. Of course it’s reflected in the music, but again like Gianni Schicchi, the great achievement of this piece – and this I realised when I started working on it – is how it tries to deal with Spanish material in music. Whether it’s by French composers or Russian composers or even Spanish composers, for me this is by far the best example of how to take everything from Spanish music but really elevate it to high art, and not be on the cliché level of Spanish rhythms etc. In many places, you find just a hint of a little bit of a modal thing that might come from Spanish music, but there’s nothing that is really Spanish, except for when they mention the torero, and you hear the bullfight and the crowd screaming. It’s all very, very subtle, and so extremely serious on the musical level. Whereas the comedy is definitely in the forefront in the play.
I guess it’s a sex farce really, and the music is certainly very sexy. Are there ways in which Ravel captures that quality?
Well, I think again there are subtle areas like the waltz – I mean that’s completely sexy. The whole string writing as well. When you rehearse it, and you ask just to do a section for the strings without the noises from the back of the percussion and the woodwinds, you get the most sensuous Ravel writing. It’s really beautiful. The strings are always swooning, it’s always suggestive and there’s always a great sense of legato with slides and tight harmonies. It’s just beautiful. And it’s very sexy, I mean I totally agree. It’s extremely erotic, even, the music. It’s sex on stage, but the music is erotic.
You can know it and listen to it, but when you take it apart to study it, then you realise how much more is in there. For a conductor, this piece is such a joy, because I think there are few pieces where you conduct and you feel like you’re a stage director. You can create the entire drama with good timing, with good tempi, with colours, with balance. It’s all free time and it’s all recitative, so basically as a conductor you can really stage it while you’re conducting. And when you have good singers to work with and they’re following, it’s a very different experience than conducting standard opera.
You’re best known in Australia for German Romantic and early 20th-century music. Do you feel connections between this repertoire and the music of the French Impressionists?
Oh, absolutely, and if you came to my second concert of the Wagner and Beyond series, the first piece that I played after we leave Wagner is Chabrier’s Gwendoline Overture. I think that everything French after, let’s say 1870, is completely derived from German music and especially from Wagner. They were all influenced. And then, of course, Debussy and Ravel found their own way away from this influence. But if you look at Vincent d’Indy and Henri Duparc and Jules Massenet, and all of Saint-Saëns, César Franck – even Sibelius, who was then studying in Paris and was actually part of the French music scene, was deeply influenced, Chabrier of course, and Paul Dukas – I mean, many may more in France than in Germany. In Germany, you can name three or four major followers of Wagner’s line, but in France you can find 15 great composers.
Limelight‘s Opera Recording of the Year 2017
Are there any other off-the-beaten-track operas you have conducted or will conduct that might find their way onto disc?
Right now, in Europe, I have nothing planned, but what I’m going to do with WASO is introduce opera in concert form, hopefully every season from next year on. In Perth, I have a completely different task, which is to bring operas, big operas that are not being performed by the West Australian Opera Company. Our audiences need to hear them and our orchestra needs to play them, so it’s going to be big Wagner, big Strauss, Fidelio maybe, big Verdi operas – things that are not performed locally.
I don’t think it would be a good thing for me to start with fringe titles, but I would definitely like to do that some time, because it’s a wonderful diversion from what you usually do, which is keep on doing the standard repertory. I’ve done The Medium by Menotti, I’ve done all kinds of operas that work well for a young student. I would like to revisit Les Mammelles des Tirésias by Poulenc. I think is a phenomenal piece and I would definitely like to do this again. I conducted my first Fedora last year, and at the time I thought, ‘There is so much in this non-performed verismo world that is great.” So, pieces like La Gioconda – which I have conducted – this area interests me a lot. I keep telling people, and when they raise an eyebrow, I say, “Mahler was so in love with Fedora that when he heard it he brought it to the Vienna State Opera.” This is great, great music and should be done, so in this area I’m going to do a little more research.