Le Comte Ory - Menage a trois

Rossini: Le Comte Ory
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.

Dancing nun!

If you want to see a production of Le Comte Ory that follows the storybook medieval setting, there's a nice video from Glyndebourne. This Met production is very entertaining, but if you're a stickler for stage directions following the libretto to the letter, this might not be the production for you. In Eugene Scribe's libretto, there's a strict moral line drawn at all times between the Count and the Countess and the Page. One example is the Act Two trio -- in the libretto, the Count believes he's making love to Adele, when in fact he's groping Isolier, and on the other side of the Page is Adele. In Sher's production, during the Act Two trio, all three participants get frisky with each other as it quickly becomes a menage a trois. Rossini's opera is a mix of medieval morality play and sex comedy. Sher decided to erase the medieval part and concentrate on the sex. It can be jarring to read the subtitles with the numerous mentions of castles and the Crusades, and to see a Beaumarchais-like sex romp onstage. But the whole thing is a lot of fun, with imaginative blocking that drew out the humor from the cast, and with such a stellar cast, it becomes great night at the opera.

As the rakish but charming Count, Juan Diego Florez was more spontaneous and less stiff than I've seen him in recent productions. Sometimes he can project an air of arrogance and and aloofness, but in this production he's fun and lovable and he made Adele's resistance hard to understand. He danced happily in the nun's habit and groped Diana Damrau's, uh, well-endowed chest lustily. Vocally the role suited his tenor leggiero beautifully -- I know in some roles, his tight vibrato and nasal timbre can sound a bit underwhelming and people want a bigger, beefier sound. But in roles like this, Florez's voice is just about perfect. The ease with which he rises to high C is always a wonder. I've heard Florez in just about every production since he debuted in NY in 2002. During this whole time I've never heard him anything less than vocally stellar. He's so vocally unflappable, in fact, that I know some opera lovers find him a little too perfect. But I say bravo to this incredibly consistent, obviously hard-working singer.

Diana Damrau is back from a maternity leave, and her voice seems to have grown in size and brilliance. It is really now quite a large coloratura voice, with a diamond-like upper register. She likes to sprinkle the vocal line with high notes done in staccato, and then smile knowingly at the audience, as if to say, "You are welcome to admire how brilliant my voice is is." Vocally she's a wonder -- she's one of those singers who doesn't ever seem to need to warm up. She launched, all guns ablazing, into "En proie a la tristesse" and the voice was big, strong, confident, and there was little of the dainty pecking of the notes typical of so many lyric sopranos. She sings in a very aggressive, assured style. High notes hold no terrors for her -- she also sings Queen of the Night and Zerbinetta. Onstage, she's very sexually bold and confident, the kind of soprano who can stick her breasts in someone's face and have it look like something she'd just do naturally. It'd be hard to imagine a production where she had to actually play Countess Adele as the cloistered medieval paragon of chastity. I just wish both her voice and her stage personality exuded just a teensy bit more warmth and sensuality (which is different from vampiness). I remember feeling the same way about her Lucia. It's an impressive voice, but not really a lovable one. Still, one has to admire the almost superhuman ease with which she dispatches the music.

Of the trio, the travesti role of the page Isolier has the least showy part, but Joyce DiDonato made the deepest impression. It's well-known that Rossini preferred the warmer, duskier sound of the mezzo-soprano for many of his heroines, but it's rare to find a mezzo-soprano that actually embodies the kind of sound people imagine when they think of Rosina or Angelina. Joyce DiDonato is that singer -- her voice is incredibly warm and seductive. She has the rich dusky timbre of a real lyric mezzo, but her upper register blooms and has the brightness and bell-like brilliance of a soprano. She has the machine-gun accuracy of Marilyn Horne, but with a much softer, more feminine timbre. She was also the most low-key but naturally funny of the trio tonight. DiDonato's part is really a small one, but she's so beguiling that it actually made sense for Countess Adele to walk off with the page at the end of the opera. She can blend her rounder mezzo with the brighter, more forward voices of Damrau and Florez in ensemble, or she can fill the house herself with her pure, lovely mezzo. I might buy a ticket to see her Komponist in Ariadne, just to hear more of her.

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!


  1. Now that was quite a night! Congrats Ivy!
    -- phoenix

  2. I doesn't sound like as nearly a horrible night as James Jorden, Zachary Woolfe, or some of the parterre commenters might have you believe. In reading their reviews, I might have imagined needles stuck through my eyes, such that I wouldn't have been able to pay attention to the music. Glad you survived the ordeal. I had a great time, but I must be a masochist.

  3. I had a very good time at Ory last Saturday night. I thought the production smart and delightful. Ms Damrau looked just sumptuous and sang the socks of the role. Juan Diego and Joyce are great Rossini singers, as was Ms Resmark -- a great find. Having seen a glitch-free Rheingold beautifully conducted by Mr Luisi that afternoon, the day counted as one of my very finest at the MET in a long time.

  4. Well I think if you've seen Bartlett Sher's production for Barber the production for Comte Ory might seem like recycled goods. Same decor, costume style, stage devices. But if you think of the whole thing as an excuse for a good time with three great singers, then you're likely to have a very good time.

  5. i saw it in the cinma yesterday and like it all very much. JDF sang really beautifully and was very funny. i think Sher has done a good job.


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