We can all be forgiven for not claiming intimate knowledge of Le Comte Ory. It is by Rossini and it was his last comic opera. The Barber of Seville and a handful of other operas come to mind and they are at the top of the genre. Le Comte was first performed in 1828 and it was a big hit. The opera has its defenders as a masterpiece, and it has not been left in the dustbin since its premiere, but it hasn’t made into the frequently-produced repertoire either.
The Metropolitan Opera had not touched it until the production under review in 2011. Don’t hold your breath about too many more unless you are in Europe at the right time where its is staged more frequently. The excuse that you need three bel canto singers to do it, is unconvincing. The Met has plenty of them and we see them regularly.
This time the Met had the singers and it assigned the directorial job to one of the best men of the theatre, Bartlett Sher.
The Duke of the castle in Touraine and most of the men have gone to fight in the Holy Land. He has left his sister, the Countess Adèle (Diana Damrau), to take care of things. The opera begins with the appearance of a couple of men who are enthusiastic and highly motivated to get into Adèle’s castle. They are the playboy Count Ory (Juan Diego Flores) and his tutor Isolier (Joyce DiDonato)
In the first act, Ory comes disguised as hermit and gets the Duchess out of her melancholy but she goes for Isolier. In the second act, he gains entry in the castle together with his retinue of 25 men all disguised as nuns. Near the end we find Ory and Isolier in bed with Adèle under cover of darkness.
Tenor Flores is on stage most of the time and he dominates the singing. He takes vocal flights to high Cs and Ds with extraordinary agility and dressed as a ridiculous hermit or nun he is comical to boot. Soprano Diana Damrau has a luminous face that is pleasure to the eye and a clarion voice that is a delight to the ear. Adèle is single and not averse to men but she fights the two pursuers off because she gave an oath to live like a widow until her crusading brother returns. In the end Sher suggests that she makes a choice.
Mezzo-soprano DiDonato is superb in the pants role of Isolier but she does not get as much exposure as we would like. The Met Chorus is outstanding as usual. The Met Opera Orchestra was conducted by Maurizio Benini.
Sher sets the opera in an 18th century theatre and plays up its theatrical, comical and farcical elements. There is a silent role of an old codger with a cane in a dishevelled wig who acts a kind of stage manager or prompter, and operator of stage machinery. It works especially the scene near the end where Adèle in a great gown and the two men are in a large bed trying to get a piece of the countess. Superb staging.
The costumes by Catherine Zuber are gorgeous and the set by Michael Yeargan shows a theatre with its colourful backdrops, stage effects and the appropriate sense of a farce rather than a heroic, medieval past.
The reason that the opera has been largely ignored is the unsatisfactory plot. Rossini could and did produce music and melodies like a well-oiled machine. They are there in Le Comte. In the first act the disguised Ory and Isolier make brave a comic attempts to seduce the countess. In the second act, Ory does much the same thing while disguised as a nun. Librettists Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson using their own previous work clearly ran out of steam when they tried for a two-act version. They stretched the plot by adding a long drinking song in the second act.
As a comic opera, it does not even have the traditional happy ending: marriage. Adèle is single and we are saved the trouble of the suitor pursuing a married woman with the attendant moral issues. But we would be prepared to laugh even more if she and her almost-lovers were caught in bed. If not, how about true love blossoming and the opera ending in a happy marriage?
For the week of September 14, 2020, the Met provides a bel canto feast. There are three operas by Donizetti: Don Pasquale, La Fille du Regiment, and L’Elisir d’Amore. Two by Rossini: Le Comte Ory and La Cenerentola. Two by Bellini: I Puritani and Norma. Who could ask for anything more?
Details about all of these and next week’s offerings can be found at www.metopera.org/