When Jean-Christophe Spinosi stepped onto the podium to conduct Le Comte Ory that night, he didn’t wait for his applause to cease, but instantly cued a hearty forte from the Ensemble Matheus, and consequently a few incredulous looks from the audience. And when clumsy, even chaotic ensemble followed in what is not Rossini’s best overture either, these looks slowly turned into a stare, until a cock-a-doodle-doo from the backdrop brought an end to the imperfect playing and kick-started the fast-forward comedy that is Rossini’s penultimate opera, the only buffo piece he set to a libretto in French rhymes and with accompanied recitatives between the elaborate arias.

Pretty Yende (La Comtesse Adèle de Formoutiers), Regula Mühlemann (Isolier), Lawrence Brownlee (Le © Werner Kmetitsch
Pretty Yende (La Comtesse Adèle de Formoutiers), Regula Mühlemann (Isolier), Lawrence Brownlee (Le
© Werner Kmetitsch

The original plot is a medieval troubadour piece that directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier transferred to a French village towards the end of the Algerian Crisis in 1962, while anticipating the revolutionary year of 1968 – with the focus on sexual liberties, as is obvious from the story, but also by making the title hero wear a red T-shirt with a cannabis leaf in one scene (period costumes by Agostino Cavalca). In the house’s co-production with the Opernhaus Zürich, country wenches are waiting for their men to come home from the war and are only too pleased to have their blues chased away by the debauched Comte Ory. The latter is disguised as a hermit, teaches “Dieu est amour”, and offers his healing services in a trailer that looks like a tasteless no-tell motel inside. But Comtesse Adèle, whose self-imposed chastity vow seems the reason for her melancholy, proves a tough nut to crack: Ory ultimately finds himself locked out of his trailer while things between Adèle and his page Isolier get steamy inside.

Act II, where the count and his all-male entourage manage to enter the Comtesse’s palace dressed up as female pilgrims, sees a more conventional take on the story, but the brilliant stage direction makes every second enjoyable. This is especially true for the vocal threesome that is “A la faveur de cette nuit obscure”, as the contrast between the achingly beautiful legato lines and the comic situation (Ory is hoping to seduce Adèle and not realising that he is laying his hands on Isolier – who in turn is caressing Adèle) couldn’t be more effective. Everything in this production looks light and natural although if one looks closer, one realizes that nothing is left to coincidence, and even the clicking of a cigarette lighter and the brushing of teeth are integral parts of the music. If things ever get a bit on the juvenile side, it is because the situation lends itself to it – hormone-driven men (especially when wearing nun’s costumes and emptying one bottle of wine after the other) will end up doing silly things indeed, so why not have Ory use a baguette as a phallic symbol or twist his spine in attempting to peep under Adèle’s skirt.

Musically, the house scored a hit with a fantastic lead couple that made the rather bland Staatsoper’s première duo of La Cenerentola look even paler by comparison. Lawrence Brownlee (Ory) is a tenore di grazia whose timbre is even throughout the passaggio and has a certain gleam to it that reminds one of Pavarotti. More importantly, he knows how to use his instrument and tosses off his high notes without narcissistic flashiness. His stamina equally impressed – it’s been some time since I heard a bel canto tenor enter the stage fully warmed up and maintain an impeccable performance until the final note like he did. His baritone colleagues Peter Kalmán (Le Gouverneur) and Pietro Spagnoli (Raimbaud) sported resonant low notes and made the best of their comprimario roles, which can generally be said of the acting capabilities of the night’s cast. Regula Mühlmann as Isolier looked dashing in a soldier’s uniform and sang her part with a light and youthful tone. To contrast that, Liliana Nikiteanu gave the chaperone Ragonde with adequate sharpness and in hideous nylon knee-highs.

Pretty Yende stood in for a sick Cecilia Bartoli and mastered every challenge with vocal perfection that left no room for pointless comparisons; she fully inhabited the role and did honour to her given name in every respect – simply a sensational Vienna debut. Being mostly an ensemble piece, Le Comte Ory needs a strong chorus with soloists and the Arnold Schoenberg Chor, as well as the members of the house’s young artists’ ensemble, provided just that.

So this was a night to remember, especially in the Act II music where the fourteen false female pilgrims are torn between their party and holy chants (the latter whenever the Comtesse or her entourage turn up), which was matchlessly delivered.