When Franz Liszt conducted Le Comte Ory in Weimar, he said it “bubbled like champagne,” according to the Metropolitan Opera’s program note. It also noted that Liszt arranged for the audience to be served champagne in Act II. Met operagoers didn’t require champagne to feel bubbly, not even during intermission of the New York house’s first-ever production of Le Comte Ory when hundreds of flutes were likely consumed. Like champagne froth spilling over a too-full glass, laughter rippled out of the audience from the opening notes of the overture.
That’s because director Bartlett Sher conceived the comic opera as a show-within-a-show and has the stage manager begin the “inner show” by rapping a stick on the floor to cue the Met’s modern-day conductor, Maurizio Benini, to begin his afternoon’s labors.
The more the show-within-a-show idea unfolded, the more I liked it. While the music is some of Rossini’s best, the storyline is Silly Putty—soft and well able to bear the imprint of someone’s vision for it. Numerous plot points are over-the-top, taxing the audience’s willing suspension of disbelief countless (pun wholly intended) times. Basically, a womanizing count tries to seduce a lovely countess while all the men are off on the Crusades. This involves being a hermit with hot hands in Act I and an infatuated nun in Act II. Imagining a medieval mashup between the feature films The Love Guru and Sister Act isn’t far off the mark for this opera.
Sher’s show-within-a-show contrivance allowed the principals to overact intentionally, as if to say, “We know we’re in a very silly show. See me swooning (Countess Adèle), swashbuckling (Isolier the page), and doing the can-can (Ory).” This show-within-a-show device had to have been freeing for the performers, akin to giving them license to ham it up, the whole time with tongues firmly planted in cheeks.
Many other highly entertaining bits evolve as a result of having an outer and inner show, including the making of a thunderstorm for the inner show and an ingenious bit with Countess Adèle’s four-poster bed which was hand-cranked so the audience could see every pat, every clutch, every grope. As an audience member I wasn’t certain whether the stock slapstick humor arose from Sher trying to imitate a poorly directed inner show, which was very likely during the time period in which the outer show was set, or from Sher’s own direction himself. So the inner-show outer-show device wasn’t perfectly executed. But it was on the whole largely successful in allowing a more sophisticated audience to access and appreciate a decidedly frothy opus.
Of course having a stellar cast is another foolproof way to engage the audience. The three principals—Juan Diego Flórez as the Count Ory, Diana Damrau as the Countess Adèle, and Joyce DiDonato as the page Isolier tackled the vocal calisthenics Rossini gave them with confidence and artistry, capable of more and leaving the audience wanting more at the end of the show. They played extremely well together in every conceivable way—in bed, out of bed—setting a gold standard for a new breed of opera singer—one who can act with as much ease and finesse as those playing on Broadway. Of course, the difference is that at the same time these opera stars are acting, they are handling vocal challenges that would crush Broadway’s best singers.
Diego Flórez has a radiant tenor that is not only strong and smooth—it pings. Even when surrounded by a chorus of men all dressed alike in nun’s habits, singing with gusto, Diego Flórez never blended in. He showcased every high note that Rossini built into the score just for the role seemingly effortlessly because his blocking has him doing a million other things while he’s singing. The tryst scene in Act II in which Diego Flórez, Damrau, and DiDonato sing “À la faveur de cette nuit obscure” was the ideal synthesis of song and performance. That scene was so expertly conceived, sung, and performed, it will always stand out as the antithesis of the stereotypic concert-in-a-costume style of opera performance. Yes, ingenuity and vocal perfection can be realized in one scene. And no one should ever have to settle for less at the Met again. As the veteran Met goer beside me stated, “They do a lot more acting these days. The acting’s much better than it used to be.” Apparently the rest of the audience thought so, too, since they gave the cast an energetic standing ovation at Saturday’s matinee.
Of course, another wonderful thing about Rossini is the extent to which he uses the chorus in his operas. Perhaps because this one is sung in French, it relies even more heavily on conventions of French opera included robust choral numbers. In this production, the chorus earned an accolade of its own. You'd be hardpressed to find a stronger, more gifted chorus than the one performing at the Met.
If you find it hard to appreciate vaudevillian-style slapstick humor, this might not be the show for you. But if you enjoy a good laugh more than a good cry, hurry to see the Met’s Le Comte Ory. You’ll never forget the effervescent storm—the perfect storm—of talent in Diego Flórez, Damrau, and DiDonato assembled on one stage. And I’ll not soon forget them either.
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