April 2, 2011
Juan Diego Florez, Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, Maurizio Benini cond.
Le Comte Ory is unusual for Rossini in that it contains neither a show-stopping aria nor a thrilling crescendo overture. It's an ensemble opera, and even though it's a comedy, the subject matter is more serious than the usual opera buffa. It was Rossini's final comic opera, composed in 1828, and some of the music is recycled from Il Viaggio a Reims. It never really found a place in the permanent repertoire. That's why it was such a delight to see this smallish opera given the Star Treatment at the Met with a new production and an A-list cast of bel canto specialists -- Juan Diego Florez, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato are about as starry of a cast as you could get for a little-known Rossini comedy.
The music for Le Comte Ory is lovely -- not all that showy, but always tuneful and often sexy and beautiful. At one point the winds trill suggestively, as the tenor climaxes on a high C. I wondered why it wasn't performed that often, until I took a good hard look at the libretto. It's very prissy. It's based on the medieval concept of chastity and speaking personally, my patience wears thin whenever the concept of any work is medieval chastity. (Maybe that's why Tannhauser is also not a favorite.) It's the Crusades, and the rakish Count Ory is taking advantage of the fact that the menfolk have left the women behind to fight in the Holy Land. First he poses as a wise, advice-giving hermit, and later as a nun. Both the Count and his page Isolier are in love with Countess Adele, who is holed up in her castle, upholding the ideals of virtue and chastity. The "comedy" of the opera comes from the pure and chaste Countess Adele being unwittingly caught in compromising sexual situations with the two men. Personally I find Countess Adele nearly insufferable as a character. She's given one of those slow cavatinas that expresses her purity ("En proie a la tristesse"), and the Count is punished for having a sex drive. If you think about, the Crusades is a weird subject for a sex comedy anyway. The opera has many vocal highlights though, my favorite being the Act Two trio "A la faveur de cette nuit obscure", which has some homoerotic undertones as the Count is aroused not just by Countess Adele but by his page Isolier as well:
Director Bartlett Sher has his own solution for the slightly starchy libretto -- he ignores it. Gone is any semblance of the medieval tale, and instead he's made the whole opera a "play within a play." The Met stage is transformed into one of those quaint jewel box theatres, with those cute wooden floors and backstage thunder machines and visible stagehands who lumber onstage with wooden fences and cardboard trees. The candelabras rise before the "opera" begins, a nice tribute to the Met's famous rising chandeliers that signal when a performance is about to start. There's even a "prompter" who bangs the stage with a stick for the show to begin. The costumes (by Catherine Zuber) are from the 18th century, and the tight pants and boots flatter Florez, while Damrau is really busting out of her pink and purple silk dresses. I found the use of a shower curtain to do an "in one" scene change an aesthetically unappealing device, and I thought that if they wanted to recreate an 18th century theater, they could have done slightly more with those "old school" theater effects. For instance, many times the shower curtain was unrolled to reveal absolutely no scene change behind the curtain. For most of the opera, there wasn't even an old painted drop that was so much a part of old-school opera productions. Those old jewel box theatres had a lot of charming special effects and ways of setting the scene, and I felt like Sher only scratched the surface of possibilities.
As Adele's servant Ragonde, Susanne Resmark had such a deep, chesty contralto that I was surprised to see her listed as "soprano" in the program booklet. Stephane Degaud was a wonderful as Raimbaud -- I'd like to hear more of this baritone. He made the Act Two drinking patter song a delight. Conductor Maurizio Benini I thought could have brought more sparkle and momentum to Rossini's famous crescendo melodies. But he seemed very sensitive to his singers, and scaled back the orchestra at the right moments so the stars could take a spectacular high note without being drowned out by the pesky orchestra.
Overall this bodes well for the future of rarer bel canto operas in a house that historically has been famously anti bel-canto. The house was packed with younger opera fans, the ovations were hearty, and it's a good sign that A-list stars are willing to sing in an opera without any real bravura moments. I know it's already become tres-fashionable to diss the production as precious and shallow, but it's fun, it's stylish, and it showcases some great singing. I felt like I got my money's worth.
The miserably cold weather of March is over, and since it was a fairly warm Saturday night, I decided to wait at the stage door. Lois was there, as was Linda, who started yelling for no particular reason after she accosted director Bartlett Sher and he talked to her patiently for what seemed like hours. Diana Damrau looks almost completely different offstage -- much smaller and sweeter, with an adorable baby in tow. She was tired and her baby was hungry, but she still stayed and signed. Juan Diego Florez was friendly and patient and posed for pictures with just about everyone. I've heard some horror stories about working with him, but with fans at least he's perfectly lovely. Joyce DiDonato was so bubbly and friendly, and actually chatted with fans personally instead of doing the smile/sign/pose routine. A group of music students from Ohio were at the stage door and DiDonato took the time to chat with each one of them. She seems to be as sweet and bubbly offstage as she is onstage. She also keeps a wonderful blog. I was happy that both DiDonato and Florez signed my DVD booklet of La Cenerentola. Here are some pictures I got of both the curtain calls and the stage door. A fun night, and plenty of performances left. Go!