Tuesday 11 February 2014

Rossini - Le Comte Ory

Giacomo Rossini - Le Comte Ory

Rossini Opera Festival, Pesaro 2009

Paolo Carignani, Lluís Pasqual, Yijie Shi, Laura Polverelli, Lorenzo Regazzo, Roberto De Candia, María José Moreno, Natalia Gavrilan, Rinnat Moriah 

Opus Arte - Blu-ray

There are two ways you can treat some of Rossini's more outrageous comedies. You can either play up the absurdity of the situations or you can attempt to make up for the silliness of the libretto by creating a distancing construct around it. I know which I would prefer, but in the case of this 2009 Rossini Opera Festival production, the director Lluís Pasqual unfortunately feels the need to impose a structure on the work that is neither meaningful nor sympathetic to the comedy. Fortunately, there is another way to get the most out of Le Comte Ory and that is to let some good singers loose on it. Despite the casting here not being as stellar as you might expect for such demanding roles, the Pesaro production at least works very well on that front.

It is very hard to take Le Comte Ory seriously, even though there is no reason why you should. Written in the composer's French period, much of the reasoning for the creation of the work was to find an alternative use for the music of Il Viaggio a Reims. Written for a specific event, the coronation of Charles X, it must have seemed a pity to let such good compositions (Rossini at his finest) go to waste, so the composer spun them together with some new music into the racy comedy of Le Comte Ory. The entertainment of the work relies primarily on that old staple of a licentious noble, in this case a Count who takes advantage of the susceptible and probably desperate women of the village while their husbands are away fighting in the crusades.

It's not a subject that is terribly elevated or even clever, nor are the means of the Count Ory's seductions all that credible - disguising himself as a hermit dispensing wise advice, or dressing up as a nun seeking shelter on a stormy night. It's hard to imagine anyone being fooled by such exploits unless they really want to play along with the game and be seduced, and it usually with such an idea that a diector will attempt to either find some credible underlying motivations or create a knowing distance between the drama and its presentation. Lluís Pasqual attempts to do all these things, but seems to forget that the work is actually supposed to be a comedy.

Evidently then, the 2009 Rossini Opera Festival production isn't set during the time of the Crusades but rather, for no apparent reason, takes place in the Grand Hotel Rossini during the Belle Epoque. Looking more like a set for La Traviata, the action of the opening scenes takes place amidst hanging velvet curtains and chandeliers, with the hermit dispensing his sage advice and sexual favours to the credulous women from atop an antique billiard table. The ultimate object of his licentious desires, the Countess Adèle, meanwhile mounts a nearby table across from him. It's hard to believe that the Count's own page, Isolier, wouldn't recognise his master in such a thin disguise (the trousers role moreover transformed here into a female character), but any semblance of disguises being convincing are dismissed when the Countess and her maid Ragone actually dress Ory up as a nun at the start of the second act.

According to the booklet that comes with the DVD/BD release, the director's concept is that it's an opera-within-an-opera (or a play-within-an-opera), the explanation for this is that the story of Le Comte Ory is being put on as a parlour game by a theatre group in order to explore their own erotic fantasies. You wouldn't know this otherwise, but even when you do know it, it still seems like a pointless conceit and scarcely any less ridiculous than the original comic story that it is attempting to make credible. What the Belle Epoque setting does however, perhaps inadvertently, is actually emphasise the elegance and sophistication of Rossini's brilliant compositional skills.

The score is sympathetically conducted in this respect by Paolo Carignani. Unsurprisingly, since it is mostly derived from Il Viaggio a Reims (a delightful work that was until relatively recently believed entirely lost), Le Comte Ory is a typically well-constructed piece, with entertaining numbers and a variety of characters who have arrangements to match and display their individual singing strengths. It all takes place moreover at a spirited pace with a musical style that is indeed sparkling with elegance, cleverness and wit. That much comes through, even if the stage direction isn't able to take advantage of it, or play to the strengths of work, which is in how it matches the singing performances to the comic situations.

Although they aren't given much support from the director, the singing nonetheless is very good. The Rossini Opera Festival doesn't seem to give the same care and attention in their casting for French Rossini as they do to the composer's Italian works, but the relatively inexperienced cast do perform rather well. Chinese tenor Yijie Shi - who can be seen in several other Pesaro productions - has the right kind of voice for high and lyrical Rossini roles like this and he meets all the challenges and demands that are required for Le Comte Ory. If you close your eyes, at times you could swear you're listening to Juan Diego Flórez, albeit not with the same force. Laura Polverelli is a fine Isolier and María José Moreno brings the necessary elegance and charm to her Comtesse Adèle, even when the stage concept seems contrived to work against her.

True, this cast are no match for the New York Metropolitan Opera's production with the stellar trio of Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato and Diana Damrau, but who could possibly measure up to that level of presence, stature and vocal ability in a work like this? Ultimately however, since the actual performances are fine here, it's less a question of singing ability than whether the production as a whole gives the right kind of platform for those voices to shine. Bartlett Sher's production at the Met went for a similar play-within-a-play construction that didn't bring anything great out of the work, but it didn't detract either from the comic situations or the performances. The Pesaro Le Comte Ory also works well in spite of a production design that doesn't really help it, which is all the more to the credit of the singers and, undoubtedly, the strength of Rossini's writing.

The BD includes a 26-minute Making of made up of interviews and behind-the-scenes rehearsals. As usual the irrepressible Alberto Zedda, the artistic director of the Rossini Opera Festival, provides some insightful comments on the work and its place among Rossini's operas. Subtitles on the BD are in French, English, German, Spanish, Italian and Korean.