Long before there was Homeland Security there was homeland insecurity, or homeland envy, or whatever you’d like to call that delectable affection felt by French composers — Bizet, Debussy, and Ravel among them — for the land of Spain.
Ravel at least came by it honestly: His mother was of Basque descent, and he once described being “cradled in my youth by habaneras never forgotten.” Meanwhile, for their part, Spanish composers of the era were no strangers to the Champs Élysées. Manuel de Falla called France his “second homeland.”
For his Boston Symphony Orchestra concerts this week, the Swiss conductor Charles Dutoit is having fun with these connections, weaving them together on a sun-warmed program devoted to works of Ravel and Falla. Best of all on Thursday night was the orchestra’s first performance of Ravel’s irresistible one-act opera “L’Heure Espagnole.”
Based on a clever play by Franc-Nohain, this comic opera, which premiered in 1911, centers on the plight of poor Concepcion, wife of the town watchmaker, Torquemada. He has stepped out from his clock shop bequeathing her a precious hour of freedom for adventure, but when her suitors arrive, one (Gonzalve) is a poet in love with his own flowery verse and unable to actually “live the dream for which we sigh.” The other is the rotund banker Don Inigo, who shares her appetite for pleasure but, she is sure, cannot really deliver. “And they call themselves Spanish!” she laments at one point, before realizing that the strong, silent muleteer Ramiro will suffice quite nicely. When the naive Torquemada returns, the men pretend to be clients in his shop, and he could not be happier. Who knew 18th-century Toledo had so many devotees of fine horology?
Ravel’s score is full of light, charm, and sumptuous color, and the stage is alive not only with Spanish rhythms but with imagined ticks and tocks popping up from every corner of the orchestra. Dutoit was the right man to have on the podium for this occasion, and he let the music breathe, dance, and shimmer. The opera was also uniformly well-cast, with Daniela Mack a nimble Concepcion, Francois Piolino as a solid Torquemada, Benjamin Hulett as an ardent (if slightly overacted) Gonzalve, and David Wilson-Johnson, full of comic instincts, as Don Inigo. The baritone Jean-Luc Ballestra belied his character’s supposed oafishness by serving as a rather debonair Ramiro, singing elegantly of his own inelegance.
The night began fittingly with Ravel’s “Rapsodie Espagnole,” which dates to the same period, and was played here with a keen sense of fantasy and atmosphere, not to mention orchestral virtuosity.
While Ravel was waxing Iberian during these years, Falla was also living in Paris, where one might say he went native by beginning his “Nights in the Gardens of Spain.” These much-admired “Symphonic Impressions for Piano and Orchestra” originated as solo nocturnes; in them, Falla eschews traditional Romantic fireworks in favor of more evocative and impressionistic scene-painting. The piece demands of its soloist an elusive blend of expressive confidence, subtlety, and poetry. Happily, the pianist Javier Perianes, here in his BSO debut, had these qualities in abundance. He demonstrated them throughout the Falla but also in his supple encore, a beautifully sensitive account of Grieg’s Notturno (Op. 54, No. 4).
The audience, for its part, thanked him with its highest compliment: listening in a rare, rapt silence.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
At Symphony Hall, Thursday (repeats Friday and Saturday)