Maurice Ravel’s delightful L’heure espagnole, usually paired with his other opera, L’enfant et les sortilèges, is here paired with Faust et Hélène, an obscure cantata by Lili Boulanger, one of Ravel’s contemporaries. Hearing her exquisite Faust et Hélène is comparable to discovering a diamond you didn’t know you had.
New Camerata Opera opens its seventh season with this very engaging double-bill. Director John de los Santos has envisioned a world where the passage of time is the focus of both of these operas. While the set for the Boulanger is spare, Mr. de los Santos is aided in this concept for the Ravel with projections of striking clockwork photography and a set filled with a collection of stylized grandfather clocks from NYC-based artist Atom Moore. Ashley Soliman’s costumes are timeless for the Boulanger work – the men are shirtless and barefoot in a variation on dhotis or male harem pants while Hélène is in an orange gown with a virtually endless train.
For the Ravel, Soliman’s costumes are contemporary with the mezzo once again in orange, this time silk shorts and a jacket, with the tenor playboy poet in jeans and a shirt open to his waist, missing only the de rigueur gold chains. The muleteer has been updated to a UPS delivery man in shorts while the banker king is in a suit. Torquemada, the clockmaker, is in a classic Spanish linen outfit for a middle-aged man. The lighting design of Joshua Rose seamlessly enhances the subtle mood changes of both scores.
The Boulanger work looks at the moment when Faust is persuaded by Méphistophélès to sign over his soul in return for being shown one moment of true happiness, in this case his moment viewing the beautiful Helen of Troy asleep. Faust demands that Hélène be brought across time, and across the ages, so that he might understand true beauty. Faust is persistent in his desire and forcibly kisses her. She becomes aware that she can feel love and is alive again. Their passion is interrupted by the bloody ghosts of the soldiers who lost their lives for Hélène. Faust loses his new lover in a battle with the ghost of Paris.
The Ravel work is a light comedy of riches. The coquette wife of Torquemada waits for him to leave the house so she can have her assignation with Gonzalve…and gets interrupted by not just her other suitor, a banker-king, but also the customer of her husband, waiting for Torquemada to return home to service his pocket watch.
The performances are stellar throughout. Mezzo Eva Parr is a siren of honeyed and cream tones as Hélène and a flustered sex kitten as Concepción in L’Heure Espagnole. Her performance makes one yearn to hear her take on the roles of Carmen or Charlotte in Werther. Tenor Chris Carr reveals incredible vocal range in the difficult role of Faust, and spot-on comic timing as the seducer poet Gonzalve in the Ravel work. Baritone Markel Reed personifies menace with his silky tones as Méphistophélès and is delightful as the muleteer/UPS man Ramiro. Andy Dwan scores the appropriate buffoonery as the lascivious banker/paramour Don Iñigo Gomez and Gabriel Hernandez is so very charming as the cuckolded clockmaker Torquemada. Music director and conductor Kamal Khan embraces every note of these two scores, especially the passages that pay homage to the vast orchestral sounds of Richard Wagner.
The New Camerata Opera production is an exhilarating realization of the vast music being made available to the intrepid audience outside the borough of Manhattan.
Faust et Hélène & L’heure espagnole (September 16 – 24, 2022)
New Camerata Opera
Irondale Center, 85 South Oxford Street, in Brooklyn
For tickets, visit http://www.newcamerataopera.org
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes including one 10-minute intermission