Le Comte Ory is one of the last operas written by Gioacchino Rossini, his only opera buffa in French, on a libretto by Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson, set in France during the Crusades. In a French village the men are at war in the Holy Land, and the women long for their return: Count Ory, a debauched youngster, takes advantage of the women’s loneliness by appearing as a hermit, some sort of pious fortune-teller who gives private audiences to pretty young ladies. Young Countess Adèle comes to the holy hermit for guidance for her anxiety, he tries to seduce her, telling her she has to renounce her chastity and open her heart to love, only to see her flee into the arms of his own page, Isolier! His schemes are overthrown by his tutor, arriving in the village and revealing his identity. In the second act we see Ory and his knights, disguised as female pilgrims, seeking asylum in the castle of Countess Adèle, where she and several noblewomen have secluded themselves. Several shenanigans later, the crusaders return and Count Ory flees, scorned.

Edgardo Rocha (Comte Ory) and Ensemble
© Toni Suter

Rossini's comedy often turns to farce, especially in the second act, where a bunch of rowdy men, dressed as nuns, drink and dance and try to harass the women. In this Zurich Opera production, by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, the action is transported to the 1960s, the war probably being some French–African campaign (the soldiers come back in Foreign Legion uniform). This transposition doesn’t add or subtract much from the flimsy plot, but it allows some funny gags: the caravan of the “holy hermit”’ is furnished as a sleazy topless bar, with leopard-print pillows and glittering red, while Count Ory wears a red T-shirt with a marijuana leaf under his hermit’s robe. Leiser and Caurier embrace the frivolous plot without pushing too much on the vulgarity, and they manage to find a sweet spot between silly and funny, which probably accounts for the longevity and success of this production, which dates back ten years.

Rebeca Olvera (Isolier), Edgardo Rocha (Comte Ory) and Brenda Rae (Adele)
© Toni Suter

They even manage somewhat to navigate the impossible scene in Act 2 when all three main characters are in bed together, Isolier dressed up as Adèle, the deceived Count Ory passionately embracing him, Adèle hiding in Isolier’s arms. The scene is not exactly believable, but it’s pretty funny. Rossini recycled most of Il viaggio a Reims’ music for this farce, adding an unusually short and unimpressive overture, a couple of charming duets, and a sensational trio for the three-in-the-bed scene. It is astonishing how Rossini manages to write spectacular music for the silliest of situations. This scene (worthy of panto) requires the whole toolbox of an experienced singer: legato, precision, control, coloratura, perfect intonation and (most of all) elegance. How you sing with elegance when you are pretending to be in bed with all the wrong people and everybody is guffawing in the audience is beyond me, but the trio of principals in Zurich did precisely that, and it was great.

Edgardo Rocha (Comte Ory), Rebeca Olvera (Isolier) and Brenda Rae (Adele)
© Toni Suter

Edgardo Rocha was hilarious as the lecherous Ory, his funny bone exploited to the max. He is a renowned Rossini specialist, and displayed all the necessary features for a successful performance: a beautiful legato, fast coloratura, easy high notes. I found his super-high notes a bit strained, not for the first time. We can only hope he will still be able to sing this repertoire for many years to come.

Brenda Rae, as Adèle, was announced as sick before the performance, and she was extremely cautious. She was very careful not to push, especially on the high notes, which she sang beautifully, but with less volume than usual. This was especially noticeable in her first aria “En proie à lа tristesse”, where conductor Victorien Vanoosten did a marvellous job of supporting her with a soft, tender sound from the excellent Philharmonia Zürich, helping her on as she slowly found more stable ground. It was touching. She gained confidence, and even in her ailing state she showed amazing breath control, great coloratura and remarkable Rossinian style.

Edgardo Rocha (Comte Ory), Brenda Rae (Adele) and Ensemble
© Toni Suter

Rebeca Olvera’s soprano is rooted on a strong middle voice, so she was effective in the mezzo breeches role of Isolier, Ory’s page and Adèle’s lover. She gave a bubbling interpretation, her beautiful high notes embellishing the ensembles, her solid technique always on point, her acting funny and appropriate. Liliana Nikiteanu was irresistible as Ragonde, funny in her acting, her contralto powerful and smooth. The cast was completed by Oliver Widmer as Raimbaud and Andrew Moore as Ory’s tutor. Last but not least, the Zurich Opera Chorus sang with precision, even in the most frenetic ensembles, and displayed considerable dramatic commitment.