Concert Reviews | CD Reviews | DVD Reviews | Opera | Early Music | News | Film | Art | Books | Kids

21.6.12

Operatic Threesome, Damrau Glitters in 'Ory'

This article was first published at The Classical Review on June 19, 2012.

available at Amazon
Rossini, Le Comte Ory, J. D. Flórez, D. Damrau, J. DiDonato, Metropolitan Opera (production by Bartlett Sher), M. Benini

(released on April 3, 2012)
Virgin 0709599 3 | 153'

Libretto (.PDF)
Score
Rossini’s penultimate opera, Le Comte Ory, is the comic counterpart to his tragic masterpiece Guillaume Tell -- both were premiered within a year of each other, in 1828 and 1829, after which Rossini did not complete another opera for the remaining 40 years of his life.

He created Ory for the Académie Royale de Musique -- that is, the Opéra de Paris rather than the Opéra Comique -- but in spite of being very serious comedy, it has fallen into near-obscurity. The Metropolitan Opera, for example, had never performed the work until last year, in this production directed by Bartlett Sher, captured on video for the company’s HD simulcast to movie theaters and for transmission on PBS’s Great Performances series.

The slender libretto by Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson was based on their own play, a send-up of medieval farce, from a decade earlier, itself based on a collection of medieval ballads made by Pierre-Antoine de la Place in the 18th century, including a melody quoted by Rossini in the opera. Rossini reused a good portion of his score for Il Viaggio a Reims, an occasional piece created for the coronation of Charles X and never published after a few performances in Paris. The music that Rossini added, however, is some of his most charming, leading Liszt, who sponsored a production in Weimar in 1850, to call it “the champagne opera.”

It is the music one remembers, like the Act I finale, an unaccompanied ensemble for 14 voices, described by scholar Richard Osborne as “music in the Italian church style -- using an a cappella church ensemble to celebrate not some Christian rite but rather the unfrocking of an imposter priest is rather a nice joke.”

The story opposes two seducers, a libertine count and his amorous page -- a replay of the Count and Cherubino from Le nozze di Figaro -- both of whom are in love with a countess who has sworn not to take a lover. The Count disguises himself, first as a holy hermit and then as a woman on pilgrimage (not actually a nun, in spite of the way it is staged here), to worm his way into the locked Castle of Formoutiers and its bevy of beautiful women, all waiting faithfully for their husbands to return from the Crusades. The page, Isolier (a trouser role), helps Ory’s tutor, who has been searching for his wayward charge, find him and foil his plan, but not before Ory finds his way into the countess’s bed, only to find a surprise there in the form of his own page who has preceded him (the splendid trio ‘A la faveur de cette nuit obscure’) – a man dressed as a woman seducing a woman in bed with a man played by a woman, if you are keeping score.

The principal attraction of this staging is what the French call a distribution d’enfer, with three knockout singers in the three leads, the sort of combination one usually finds only at celebrity gala concerts. The cast is led without a doubt by soprano Diana Damrau, who gives a blockbuster performance as La Comtesse Adèle, with flawless coloratura technique in the showstopping ‘En proie à la tristesse’ in Act I, ending on a blistering high E flat. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato is boyish and charming as Isolier, with equally fine fioriture and some fiery high notes of her own.

Few tenors working today are as accomplished in the Rossini operas as Juan Diego Flórez, and he plays Ory with a devilish wink, a striking ease and agility in difficult melismatic passages, and ringing high notes – the role has a number of high Cs and Ds. That he made it onto the stage at all that day was something of a miracle: as it was widely reported, he was with his wife, who was giving birth to their first child at their apartment only a little over a half-hour before curtain up.

Shortcomings are due mostly to the staging by Bartlett Sher, which tries a little too hard, setting the action in a 19th-century theater rather than in the Middle Ages. Looking for an intimacy hard to achieve in the cavernous theater of the Metropolitan Opera, the sets (designed by Michael Yeargan) reduce the stage space, putting the playing space on a little platform, with many old-school effects viewed in the ‘off stage’ space and interfering with the action.

The theatrical mise en abyme technique -- a performance within the performance -- is now so common in operatic productions that it is becoming a little tired. The effect is made worse by the manner of the Met HD simulcasts, which invade the backstage and, while showing an often unseen side of how an opera is staged also puncture the aura of mystery, because they present opera in a way it is not meant to be seen.

The cinematic close-up makes sense in film and even theater, when the main form of emotional communication is through subtlety of facial expression, but not in opera, where it is supposed to be about singing and music seen and heard from a distance. The Met camera (video directed by Gary Halvorson) focuses in far too much on individuals, and often the wrong ones.

For example, we get glimpses of a supernumerary character, a sort of stage manager for the little show within a show, whom we see manipulating little bird puppets around the singers and, at times, mugging directly at the viewer through the camera. For a Flórez high note in the Count’s opening cavatina, the camera pans upward awkwardly to catch the same servant wagging the birds above the singer’s head, which utterly deflates the excitement of hearing the note sung. The camera also catches members of the chorus mugging, looking vacant, darting a glimpse at the conductor – all things one is not meant to see, and almost certainly would not see from a seat in the house.

Perhaps unfortunately, the DVD keeps some of the feel and format of the HD broadcasts, opening with the introduction by host Renée Fleming, while most of the intermission interviews are kept for a bonus section on the second DVD. The interview features, where the host catches one or more of the singers right after the last note of the finale, are often uncomfortable. The best outcome is to spoil the musical effect, when you just want to be with your memory of the last notes and not have the illusion burst by seeing the singer rather than the character. The worst is embarrassment for the singe.

Other elements are out of place, too. In the supporting cast, Suzanne Resmark’s tone was a little off-color and under pitch as the Comtesse’s servant, Ragonde; Michele Pertusi rushed through some of the fast passages as the Gouverneur; but Stéphane Degout had a patter-quick turn as the count’s servant, Raimbaud. At the podium, Maurizio Benini was far from stellar, too matter of fact, and the performance suffered from some of the coordination issues that Anne Midgette and other critics noted on opening night, still there two weeks into the run.

The switch of focus one can discern at the Met, away from musical concerns to visual ones, is evident not only in the way the production was realized and filmed but in the choice of score: as Alex Ross pointed out, the performance did not take advantage of the new critical edition of this opera, which restores some of the portions of the two finales cut for later revivals. Then again, neither does this DVD’s main competition, a DVD from Glyndebourne, from a performance in 1997 with Annick Massis, Marc Laho, and Diana Montague.

SEE ALSO:
Glyndebourne production

Alex Ross, Le Comte Ory; or, missed opportunities (The Rest Is Noise, March 26, 2011)

Anne Midgette, Fizzy “Ory” at Met Opera charms its public (The Classical Beat, March 26, 2011)

Richard K. Fitzgerald, Frolics and Frippery: A Roll in the Hay with Rossini (Ionarts, July 22, 2006)

Anthony Tommasini, With Rossini’s Mix of This and That, the Met Finds an Excuse for a Romp (New York Times, March 25, 2011)

Peter Gelb, Theatrical Nuance on a Grand Scale (New York Times, March 25, 2011) -- an "advertorial" as Anne Midgette put in, run by the paper on the same day as its own review of the production

No comments: