The Met serves up a sexy, inspired cast in delightfully theatrical “Le Comte Ory”
To start with the obvious: Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, which had its Met debut last night with Juan Diego Flórez in the title role alongside Joyce DiDonato and Diana Damrau, is funny. You may have seen the posters showing Flórez’s handsome face framed by a wimple. Now try to picture him twirling like a dervish, his habit ballooning up and around, in front of a chorus of drunken knights all similarly dressed as nuns.
The next thing to note about Rossini’s final comedy, written for Paris audiences in 1828: it’s sexy. The entire plot is one elaborate act of seduction, with Ory trying to bed the voluptuous Countess Adèle (Damrau) while the men of the castle are off on a Crusade. First he impersonates a hermit who advises the countess that the only cure for her current neurosis is a love affair. Then, after he discovers that his own page, Isolier, is making similar advances (a trouser role here sung by DiDonato), he and his men dress up as nuns to gain access to the women-only castle, where, under the cover of darkness, he ends up in bed with not only Adèle but also Isolier. In Bartlett Sher’s production the trio between them becomes an intricately choreographed threesome on a giant bed that has been winched up to just the right angle so that even the last row of the Family Circle is left in no doubt as to who does what to whom.
Those two qualities alone will ensure the work popular appeal. But add three principal singers at the top of their game, a score full of unexpected riches, and delightful costumes and sets, and what looks at first glance like a cute rarity turns into a deeply satisfying operatic experience.
Sher and designer Michael Yeargan set the opera inside a seventeenth-century theater with all the endearingly primitive mechanisms of stagecraft in full view. We see the pulleys and ropes that hoist up the sets, and the hard-working stagehands who push ladders into place, create wind and thunderclap effects with metal sheets, and activate swarms of butterflies on thin metal rods. No wonder that they longingly eye the crates of wine as they stack them up for Ory and his drinking companions in Act II.
Catherine Zuber’s whimsical costumes add to the fun. Taking her inspiration from regional French folkloric dress – especially the head coverings that look like dollops of meringue – she created a feast for the eyes. In the scene in which the women consult the hermit who has set up camp outside their castle, she has Flórez sporting a long flowing beard and robe, making him look like a shady guru preaching free love to his disciples.
Scenes like this worked not only visually, but also thanks to Sher’s impeccable sense of flow, mirrored in the pit by conductor Maurizio Benini. When Rossini’s music embarks on one of its accelerating crescendos, Ory and his sidekick, Raimbaud (sung with bravura by Stephane Dégout), motion to the women to hurry up with their offerings and entreaties.
But perhaps the biggest sleight-of-hand consisted in the way in which each one of the singers made it look easy. Flórez was in top form. Like any good comedian, he knows his timing. Whether in his movements or in his singing, he knows when to tease and when to give, one moment quick and light, the next showing flashes of steely determination.
In Damrau he has a perfect counterpart. Rossini gives Adèle some of his most difficult runs and flourishes and a liberal dose of high notes. Damrau delivered them all with needlework-like precision and an unfailing sense of color and comic timing. Her pure, somewhat cool timbre was well suited to the character of Adèle who – until that final trio – appears emotionally detached.
Not so Isolier, the Cherubino of the opera. In DiDonato’s portrayal, the page is quivering with feeling, impetuous and passionate, sensitive and naïve. With her warm, flexible mezzo, DiDonato made him the pivotal character whose innocence, wit and emotional honesty breathe human warmth into the farce.
Rossini’s detractors have long accused him of lacking the kind of generosity of spirit that Mozart brought to even the frothiest of plots. But among the surprises of Le Comte Ory is a level of human warmth rarely felt in Rossini operas, matched by moments of arrestingly rich harmonies. One such scene comes at the beginning of Act II when the women huddle together as a violent storm rages outside. Rather than resort to a caricature of fearful females alone – the storm does provide the pretext for Ory and his fellow “nuns” to gain entrance to the castle – Rossini allows a shadow to fall over the moment as the women sing of their fear for their loved ones out in the tempest.
The musically exquisite threesome also veers between the comic and the touching, the interplay of voices dense with sexual and emotional ambiguity.
In weaving such a spell while keeping the comic framework in full view – with a stagehand busy hoisting the bed up, or cranking the wind machine - Sher reminds us of the mechanism of deceit common to both the art of opera and that of courtship. Rather than extend the distance between the audience and the opera’s characters, the exposed beams and ropes, pulleys and winches draw us in, victims of our own eagerness to believe, and be seduced.
Le Comte Ory runs through April 21. www.metopera.org; 212-362-6000