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The New Criterion


An Exuberant "Comte Ory"

June 02, 2011

By Heather Mac Donald

Some of the best comedy in New York played this spring at the Metropolitan Opera, where a randy French count disguised as a holy hermit could be seen consoling lonely young wives with his “religious counsel.” The tenor Juan Diego Florez, as the title character in Gioachino Rossini’s little-known opera Le Comte Ory (The Count Ory), confirmed his status as one of the most uninhibited comedians on the opera stage today. His fellow Rossinians Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato, however, were close at heel. Comedy is the highest end of the bel canto style, and the director Bartlett Sher brought out all the comic potential in this elegantly sly, endlessly tuneful score. The Met’s debut production of Rossini’s penultimate opera demonstrated that self-conscious silliness can be a sublime artistic achievement.

Le Comte Ory allowed Florez to show off his most endearing skill: zaniness in disguise. Florez’s enthusiastic embrace of the ridiculous is all the more surprising, since his Latin-lover looks and pitch-perfect coloratura technique would allow him to wow audiences by simply planting himself in the middle of the stage and belting out high Cs. Here, as the medieval libertine Count Ory, he did much more than sing, though he did that with his usual effortless bravura and distinctively clarion (one could say nasal) tone. The licentious count has tricked himself out as a religious hermit and set up shop outside the castle of his latest amorous target, the Countess Adèle (the soprano Diana Damrau), who has gone into seclusion pending her brother’s return from the Crusades. The village girls, dressed in fluffy pastel dresses and extravagant hats, bring gifts of luscious fruits and old wines, hoping for a therapeutic session with this holy man. After a rambunctious introduction by Ory’s sidekick Raimond (the French baritone Stéphane Degout), Florez emerges portentously from a scrawny doorframe, looking like a cross between a blissed-out Maharishi and an Old Testament prophet just returning from a desert fast. His luxuriant dark beard is noticeably pasted to the bottom of his chin; his shredded white robe only imperfectly covers his black chevalier boots. Smiling glassily, Florez issues a lilting invitation to “Come to me, my beauties,” the very image of unctuous religious posturing—eyes rolling heavenwards after attentively sweeping the ample décolletage arrayed before him, hands spread in benediction with occasional detours to test the goods. Florez then joined his supplicants in a madly rollicking patter song in which he beneficently accepted their humble offerings.

Ory’s hermit schtick almost works. Adèle had emerged from her retreat to seek out this famous seer, and Ory was accompanying her back into the castle exuding saintly concern, when his tutor recognizes and unmasks him. As in Don Giovanni, the last-minute disruption of the seducer’s plans is a mere temporary setback; the rake gets cheerfully back to business in the second act.

Clearly another disguise is called for. Adèle and her ladies are surprised to learn that fully two dozen nuns are outside the castle seeking refuge from the advances of none other than the ever-rapacious Count Ory. One of the nuns simpers into Adèle’s room with little mincing steps, repeatedly curtsying to the accompaniment of equally obsequious flutes. This retiring young novice—Sister Colette—has an odd habit of kissing her protectress’s hand all the way up to her neck and diving under the countess’s gauzy skirts while kneeling in gratitude before her. Adèle and Colette engage in a prolonged battle of wills through a musical landscape of sensuous waltzes and martial 4/4 meter, during which Adèle slowly realizes that it is not fear of the marauding Count Ory that makes this sister so insistent in her embraces.

Florez’s flair for comic detail, whether primly rearranging a stray tendril of his long Jeremiah locks or, as Sister Colette, coquettishly transferring a kiss from his fingertip to Damrau’s forehead, was flawless. (The soprano Natalie Dessay is more usually celebrated for her comedic talents, but where her acting can verge on the hysterical, Florez retained a hint of self-possession even during his most extravagant antics.) In a classic piece of stage business in Act I, Florez slowly reeled Damrau to him via her long purple scarf (and nearly falls to the ground when she lets the scarf go). Florez’s inspired touch was the mad, glittering glance that he shot out to the audience as he pulled in his prey, recalling Groucho Marx marveling at his own audacity. Florez understands the pleasures of physical hyperbole: You don’t just run across the stage (in this case to the back of your thatch-roofed hermit hut in preparation for your grand entrance), you run with a silly, high-kneed gait crouching at each hop, like Yosemite Sam darting between boulders. Arrayed with his twenty-four fellow “nuns” (Ory’s swashbuckling retinue) in Adèle’s castle, Florez extravagantly slid up to a high note in ostentatious praise of the castle’s “hospitality.”

It should be noted that Florez had plenty of comic pros to play off of here. Diana Damrau, who first sails forth from her castle aerie on a billowing wave of purple satin and diamonds, launched arpeggios as a weapon in flamboyant displays of outrage. Her dramatic pauses between strophes and puzzled double-takes at the ardor of Sister Colette were impeccably timed. The mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato was the perfect straight man as Ory’s page Isolier. DiDonato was the butt of Florez’s furious bastinado when Ory, still in hermit garb and unrecognized by his unsuspecting page, realizes that Isolier is competing with him for Adèle’s affections; DiDonato accepted these blows with an innocent fatalism. Her command of courtly gesture—suspending an arm gracefully behind her back or quickly dropping to her knee—made Isolier’s conquest of Adèle fully believable. And just when you thought that nothing could match the crystalline purity of Damrau’s supple soprano, DiDonato stopped time with a line of recitative, shaped with astoundingly subtle dynamic control and infusions of breath.

Stéphane Degout as Ory’s cheeky co-conspirator Raimbaud, sartorially a combination gypsy-pirate, displayed indomitable energy rounding up girls for his master’s delectation or reattaching the hermit’s listing beard. Degout sang Raimbaud’s jaunty paean to the castle’s wine cellar, which Raimbaud has just plundered for his fellow “nuns,” with clear articulation and rounded warmth. The Swedish soprano Susanne Resmark as Adèle’s lady-in-waiting Ragonde exhibited a Jack Benny-esque skepticism towards the pious assemblage of nuns who the moment before had been noisily guzzling the castle’s wine. Ory’s tutor, sung by the Italian bass Michele Pertusi, has the opera’s only stolid aria, which it is difficult to enliven, but Pertusi perked up considerably in nun’s habit during the drinking scene.

Unlike the count’s self-transformations, the metamorphoses that gave rise to Le Comte Ory were fabulously successful. Rossini lifted about half the music in Ory from his first Paris opera, Il Viaggio a Reims, an 1825 “cantata scenica” celebrating the coronation of Charles X. The composer retired the score of Viaggio after just four performances, realizing that its slight plot—an abortive expedition to the coronation—was too dependent on its historical context to allow the opera an afterlife. Three years later, half of Viaggio’s music reappeared in Le Comte Ory, itself a reworking by the playwrights Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson of their 1816 one-act vaudeville about the libidinous count based on a picaresque medieval ballad. All of Ory’s Act I, with the exception of the duet between a fuming hermit-Ory and Isolier, comes from Viaggio, but in stunningly different guise: an innkeeper’s regrets at not being able to attend the coronation herself, for example, becomes in Ory the hermit’s treacly promise of benediction to the villagers. Act II, by contast, is mostly new, including witty choral writing pitting Adèle’s virtuous ladies-in-waiting against the count’s rakish entourage in an almost Idomeneo-like storm scene punctuated by an offstage male barbershop quartet.

Sadly, an unbearably beautiful, pulsing barcarolle of a sextet from Viaggio (“Non pavento alcun periglio”) did not make it into Ory. (Claudio Abbado’s performance of this sextet and the rest of Viaggio on Deutsche Grammaphon is a must-hear, unmatched realization of bel canto sprezzatura.) In partial recompense, however, there is the final trio of Ory’s Act II, “A la faveur de cette nuit obscure.” Ory has snuck into Adèle’s bedroom, unable to control his erotic torment. In the dark he makes advances to Isolier, rather than to Adèle, who have together laid a trap for him. Ory’s vocal line as he enters the bedroom is shorn of ornamentation; Florez sang this introduction with such heartbreaking tenderness that he seemed genuinely and touchingly in love. As the two female voices join in above softly throbbing strings, the intertwining melodies float languidly through bittersweet harmonies, which the conductor Maurizio Benini brought forth in all their diaphanous colors. This trio even approaches “Deh vieni, non tardar” from Le Nozze di Figaro and “Soave sia il vento” from Così Fan Tutte in suspended enchantment.

Sher cranked up the sexual heat in the scene exponentially from the original production, judging from an unintentionally amusing lithograph of the 1828 Paris debut, in which Isolier recoils in a narrow, high-backed wooden chair while Ory kisses his hand on one side of the chair and Adèle crouches protectively on the other. At the Met, all three characters climbed into bed together for a slow-moving dance of intertwined limbs and caresses freely shared in every possible amorous combination—an instance of directorial license probably suiting our contemporary sensibilities more than the original staging would have.

Sher is the Met’s most important get in general manager Peter Gelb’s highly trumpeted campaign to bring a new crop of theater directors to the house. Sher is visibly steeped in the history of comic stagecraft; one of the great pleasures of this production was to perceive in its details gestural conventions gathered from the Commedia dell’Arte tradition through Some Like It Hot. Equally important, Sher has taste, something that has disappeared from opera stages in Europe, as the depressing modernizations of Le Comte Ory available on YouTube attest. Sher updated the action in Ory from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century, giving the costume designer more play for low-cut, bosom-projecting gowns—Adèle went through purple, peach, and rose confections in just two acts, as well as a flamboyant ostrich feather ruff. But since the Rococo period still contains aristocratic hierarchies, the updating did not render the plot meaningless. Sher also gratuitously added the trappings of a play-within-a-play to the action; fortunately, the intrusion was marginal and easily ignored.

The artifice of the bel canto style naturally conveys irony and wit; the tautness in the music provides the perfect framework for a world in which everyone is self-consciously playing a role. In fact, every bel canto tragedy feels like a sadly missed opportunity. I would trade a raft of Lucias and Normas for a few more Don Pasquales and Barbieres. It is cause for celebration, therefore, that the Met brought Rossini’s last comedy for the first time to New York, and that the participants in this magnetic production were so attuned to the delights of uninhibited musical exuberance.

Original Source:



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