Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Le Comte Ory - an opera in two acts (1828)
Count Ory, a young and licentious nobleman - Juan Diego Florez (tenor); Countess Adele - Diana Damrau (soprano); Isolier, page to Count Ory and in love with the Countess Adele - Joyce DiDonato (mezzo); Raimbaud, friend to Count Ory - Stéphane Degout (baritone); Governor, tutor to Count Ory - Michele Pertussi (bass); Ragonde, companion to Countess Adele - Susanne Resmark (alto)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Maurizio Benini
Producer: Bartlet Sheer
Set Designer: Michael Yeargen Costume Designer: Catherine Zuber
rec. 9 April 2011
Picture format: NTSC 16.9; Region free. Colour HD. Sound: LPCM stereo.
Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Italian
VIRGIN CLASSICS DVD VIDEO 0709599 [2 DVDs: 153:00 plus bonus]
Afterthe premiere of Semiramide in Venice on 3 February 1823 Rossini and his wife travelled to London via Paris. There the composer presented eight of his operas at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket, and also met and sang duets with the then King. The stay was reputed to have brought Rossini many tens of thousand pounds. On his return to Paris, Rossini was offered the post of Musical Director of the Théâtre Italien. His contract provided an excellent income and a guaranteed pension. It also demanded new operas from him in French, a command of which linguistic prosody he needed to learn. Before any such tasks however, came the unavoidable duty of a work to celebrate the coronation of Charles X in Reims Cathedral in June 1825. Called Il viaggio a Reims (A Journey to Reims) it was composed to an Italian libretto and presented at the Théâtre Italien on 19 June. It was hugely successful in a handful of sold-out performances after which Rossini withdrew it, considering it purely a pièce d’occasion.
Rossini’s first compositions to French texts for The Opéra were revisions of earlier works with new libretti, settings and additional music. Le Siège de Corinthe, the first, was premiered in October 1826 and was a resounding success with Moïse et Pharon, a revision of the Italian Mosè in Egitto, following in March 1827 to even greater acclaim. During the composition of Moïse et Pharon, Rossini agreed to write Guillaume Tell. Before doing so he wrote Le Comte Ory, to a wholly new French libretto. In doing so he made use of no fewer than five of the nine numbers from Il viaggio a Reims.
The use of the five numbers from Il viaggio, mainly in the first act, gives a distinctly different tinta to the music between the two acts of Le Comte Ory. Itis not a comic opera in the Italian tradition, where secco recitative was to last another decade or so, but more in the French manner of opéra-comique. There are no buffoon characters and no buffa type patter arias. The work is one of charm and wit in the best Gallic tradition and with, perhaps, a look towards Offenbach. The plot concerns the Countess Adele and her ladies who swear chastity and retreat to the Countess’s castle when their men go off to the crusades. Comte Ory, a young, licentious and libidinous aristocrat is determined to gain entrance to the castle in pursuit of carnal activity. He first does so as a travelling hermit seeking shelter and charity. When this fails he returns disguised as the Mother Superior of a group of nuns, really his own men in disguise and who also fancy their chances with the pent up ladies. His young page, Isolier, a trousers role, himself in love with the countess thwarts Ory’s plans. The timely return of the crusaders does likewise for the intentions of Ory’s fellow ‘nuns’. Love remains ever pure and chastity unsullied! 
This recorded performance is the same as was transmitted to cinemas worldwide on the Saturday evening shown. At a cinema, I waited with worried anticipation for a front of stage announcement, as the performance was a little later than usual in starting. None was forthcoming, but in the interval talk, repeated here as part of the bonus of interviews conducted by soprano diva Renée Fleming, it emerged that tenor Juan Diego Florez had been in the birthing pool with his wife shortly before hurrying to the theatre for the performance after the arrival of a son! He was on a high and by the end of the performance so were we, at least in respect of the singing.
Bel canto and the Metropolitan Opera have not always been easy bedfellows. In the 1950s general manager Bing fell out with Maria Callas, reigning queen of the genre. With that separation the house ceded the genre to Allen Sven Oxenberg’s American Opera Society. Oxenberg presented Callas as Imogene in Bellini’s Il Pirata for its American debut. Overnight the AOS became New York’s principal purveyor of star operatic attractions. In February 1962 it even upstaged the Met with Sutherland’s debut in the city singing the eponymous role in Bellini’s long forgotten Beatrice di Tenda. The arrival of Joan Sutherland on the scene changed the Met’s attitude to the bel canto repertoire. It is perhaps significant that shortly after Peter Gelb took over as General Manager in 2006, and set about revitalising productions, one of the earliest productions of his first season was a revival of Bellini’s I Puritani, originally mounted in 1976 for the great Australian diva. The revival featured Anna Netrebko as Elvira giving a sensational rendering of the act two mad scene (see review). In retrospect this seemed to kick-start a significant return to the bel canto under Gelb with a series of new productions that were also premieres at the theatre, and even in America, of neglected operas of that period. The sequence has included Rossini’s Armida in 2010, this performance of Le Comte Ory in the spring of 2011 and Donizetti’s Anna Bolena later the same year. The composer’s Maria Stuarda is scheduled for the 2012-2013 season. All these productions are included in the Met’s programme of transmissions to cinema’s worldwide. My reviews of the first and third of those operas will appear shortly on this site.
The only downside of Peter Gelb’s policy has been in his choice of directors and set designers. The choice often falls to those with rather off-beat ideas and little experience of opera. In the case of this Le Comte Ory, director Bartlet Sheer and set designer Michael Yeargen choose the “theatre within a theatre” concept of a presentation in the late eighteenth century. Not a failing in itself, but do the audience really want to see the wind-machine and thunder-sheet, let alone the constant fussing of a period costumed and seemingly senile stage manager roaming the set? I doubt it, and it does distract from an excellent cast of principals and the superb and opulent gowns for the ladies of the castle. Add a lack of cohesion, even unintended confusion, in the three-in-a-bed pranks of the last scene, much better handled in the 1997 Glyndebourne production (see review), and I dearly wished that Gelb had appointed a team with more experience of opera and this genre in particular.
The three principal singers, Juan Diego Florez as Ory, Diana Damrau as the Countess pursued by him and Joyce DiDonato as Isolier, his page and rival for the countess’s affections, could hardly be bettered. Their singing is outstanding in all respects, all of them making the best they can of the producer’s clichés. All three are consummate actors able to create a character as well as being coloratura specialists. Despite the many vocal challenges thrown at them by Rossini I hardly heard a fluffed line or smudged or aspirated vocal division. Spectacular high notes are hit with a purity and élan that takes the breath away. The supporting cast includes a very good Raimbaud, Ory’s friend in the seduction plans, in the person and firm tones of the baritone Stéphane Degout. There’s also a sometimes dry-toned Michele Pertussi as Ory’s tutor. Susanne Resmark is a well-acted Ragonde with many facial expressions that partially distract from her capacious bosoms that look as if they are going to wobble out of her bustier any minute. Maurizio Benini conducts with a pleasing combination of wit and élan that allows Rossini’s creation to sparkle.
The Virgin Classics booklet gives no chapter listings, contents or timings. The essay explaining Bartlet Sheer’s ideas, in English and French is no compensation for this omission.
Robert J Farr
Outstanding singing from the three principals. Quirks of production spoil what should have been an issue deserving the highest accolade.