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Gioachino ROSSINI (1792-1868)
Le Comte Ory, opera in two acts (1828)
Philippe Talbot (Le Comte Ory)
Julie Fuchs (Adèle)
Gaëlle Arquez (Isolier),
Eve-Maud Hubeaux (Ragonde)
Jean-Sébastien Bou (Rambaud)
Denis Podalydès (Director)
Eric Ruf (Set Designer)
Christian Lacroix (Costume Designer)
Orchestre des Champs-Élysées, Les éléments/Louis Langrée
rec. 27 & 29 December 2017, Opéra Comique, Paris
C MAJOR 747504 Blu-ray [150 mins]

Le Comte Ory, Rossini’s penultimate opera, and his final comic masterpiece, premiered in 1828 at the Opéra National de Paris. An uncommissioned and thus unexpected comedy, it draws substantially on music from Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims, which was given (just four times) in 1825. The womanising Count Ory, disguised as a hermit, advises the Countess Adèle that the answer to her depression – caused by the departure of her brother for the Crusades – is love. She, though, turns for this form of consolation to Ory’s page Isolier, and Ory is exposed and so needs a new expedient for Act Two’s attempt on Adèle. This time he and his companions enter Adèle’s castle disguised as nuns, but are thwarted once again by Isolier and the return of the Crusaders. Ory begs for mercy, and he and the “nuns” are shown a secret exit.

At this 2017 production of the Opéra Comique, this scenario was updated to the time of the opera’s composition, with French military expeditions to Algeria replacing the Crusades. Of course the libretto is unchanged so while the curtain had 1820s military exploits projected onto it, the Crusade references are left in, and the letter the Countess reads at the end of Act 1 still refers to “the Holy Land” and “Saracen blood”. Not that this is especially jarring –but neither is it especially illuminating, except maybe in an implied statement that licentious roguery and duplicity is found in any age, hardly a novel insight.

Stage director Denis Podalydès and costume designer Christian Lacroix do, though, provide settings and characters that are interesting to look at, always with an eye on an effective stage picture in Act 1, where the blocking enables the necessary switch of focus as successive scenes occur in the hermit’s locale (an interior with altar and confessional boxes, suggesting the power and authority the hermit is assumed to possess). Act 2 is plainer, a high bare room suggesting a timeless interior more than a castle of the Crusader era.

The production is once or twice cruder than the text would suggest. In particular, Isolier wonders how to disarm the Countess’s “vertu si fière” (“virtue so haughty”) and touch “son cour trop sévère” (“too hard a heart”), so must be amazed to find her aristocratic pride thrown aside in her response to the suggestion of the disguised Ory that the flame of her life be rekindled by love. The text in which she sings “Isolier how sweet an emotion your presence arouses in me” is marked as an aside, but is here staged as a public declaration. Our severe Countess throws Isolier to the floor and starts to remove his clothing and later her own. It’s all good, if not clean, fun but a subtler approach might have had the wit to match that of the music.

There is much less of this in Act 2, and in particular the great trio (which of course Ory at first believes to be a duet), “A la faveur de cette nuit obscure” (“under cover of this dark night”) is disarmingly achieved, the choreography of three singers and one bedsheet matching the situation neatly. And it is very well sung indeed by the three principals. Small wonder Berlioz, who loved Le Comte Ory, especially admired this number.

The singers make a strong team. The Isolier of mezzo-soprano Gaëlle Arquez shines in the travesty role, looking and sounding well. Julie Fuchs’s Comtesse Adèle sings enchantingly, with a lovely sound, some impressive coloratura, and a real trill. She even pulls off the broad Act 1 comedy the producer gives her. Le Comte Ory himself is Philippe Talbot, an ideal lyric tenor in exactly the right tradition, with enough headroom to cope with the occasionally high tessitura. All the smaller roles are well-taken, though Ory’s Tutor (Patrick Bolleire) is a dull dog, whose Act 1 aria might make you understand why on the 1956 Glyndebourne recording Gui omits it.

There is also a Glyndebourne DVD from 1997, and a Met production on DVD from 2011 with a star cast of Juan Diego Flórez, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato. Both have their advocates, but I would not easily relinquish this very recommendable performance for its generally excellent style and scale, and near-ideal francophone cast. Conductor Louis Langrée leads the Orchestre des Champs-Élysées and the singers of Les éléments with sparkle and drive, the original instruments often adding delightful colour. The booklet is adequate, no more, but the picture and surround sound are excellent. There are no extras, and this marvellous comedy needs none, except perhaps an abundance of good champagne.

Roy Westbrook
Previous review (DVD): Robert Farr

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