Monday, 12 February 2018

Rossini - Le Comte Ory (Paris, 2017)

Gioachino Rossini - Le Comte Ory

L'Opéra Comique, Paris - 2017

Louis Langrée, Denis Podalydès, Philippe Talbot, Julie Fuchs, Gaëlle Arquez, Éve-Maud Hubeaux, Patrick Bolleire, Jean-Sébastien Bou, Jodie Devos, Laurent Podalydès, Léo Reynaud

Culturebox - 29th December 2017

There's a general consensus that Rossini's final opera Guillaume Tell is the pinnacle of the composer's relatively short but prolific period as an opera composer (around 40 operas in just 20 years), but there are other lighter and more playful pieces in Rossini's late French works that are equally as accomplished as William Tell. True there may arguably be greater masterpieces among the earlier Italian works like Mosè in Egitto and - who am I to dispute it? - the perennial charm of Il Barbiere di Siviglia - but leaving aside the re-works of Le siege de Corinthe and Moise et Pharaon, the operas composed for a French audience like Il viaggio a Reims and Le comte Ory are remarkable confections that combine a lightness of touch and crowd-pleasing numbers with extraordinarily beautiful and inventive melodic arrangements.

Le comte Ory might not have much of a plot to speak of, but the musical writing is equally as impressive and sophisticated in its expression and arrangements as the work that preceded it, Il viaggio a Reims, an opera that was written for the one-off occasion of the coronation of Charles X in 1825. Believing music too good to be lost (as it would actually be for 150 years or so), Rossini reused much of it for the composition of Le comte Ory. The earlier work had more of a variety show numbers feel to it (Rossini ahead of the game there, much as he was in his development of grand opéra and bel canto, or unforgivable depending on your viewpoint, although he can hardly be blamed for the excesses or banality of others in those fields), so Rossini had to be a little creative in how he reworked the musical material to fit a dramatic plot for Le comte Ory.

You can hardly call the plot sophisticated, as the first half of the opera involves a nobleman, the Count Ory, who disguises himself as a wise hermit so that he can seduce the credulous wives of all the men who have left them alone and unloved and gone off to fight in the Crusades. In the second half, the licentious young Comte Ory puts into play a suggestion that his page Isolier has concocted as a way that might get himself close to the Countess Adèle, sister of the lord of Formoutiers, who he is in love with. Using the page's idea for himself, Ory disguises himself and his men as nuns on a pilgrimage so that they can gain access to the otherwise inaccessible womanly delights that are locked away in the Countess's castle, fearful of the storm outside and looking for comfort.

As a way of providing a variety of colourful scenes for the composer to apply his melodic and effervescent music to however, Le comte Ory gets the job done. And with considerable style and aplomb. It's almost casually brilliant in making it all seem effortlessly light and entertaining. In fact, the work is filled with dramatic and comedic expression, allowing opportunities for individual virtuosity that impress as much as they amuse. The extravagant coloratura and high notes are more often used for comic emphasis and expression of the whirlwind of emotions that are stirred up rather than just being thrown in for the sake of showing-off. Boosted by a capella harmonised ensembles and invigorating choruses, the work transmits that sense of joyful abandon to the audience in the most direct and engaging way that any opera should.

The perceived silliness of the plot however often - in the relatively rare occasions when it is performed - leads modern directors to add a distancing effect (The Met, Pesaro) that actually has the effect of diluting the wholly intentional silliness and comedy of the situation. Why can't they just play the comedy 'straight', so to speak? Well that's what Denis Podalydès does in this wonderfully entertaining production at the Opera Comique (the Paris opera house that knows the real value of light French comic opera) with the result that the work just sparkles with the natural verve and brilliance of its composition. Not to mention that it has a superb cast capable of bringing out all those inherent qualities in the work.

Podalydès doesn't need any clever device or framing structure to make this confection any sweeter. The comedy is in the situation itself and the director just ensures that the performers play them up to the hilt and for all they are worth. Eric Ruf's set for Act I is no more than a country church and Ory is disguised more as an eccentric priest than a hermit, but I guess you might think that the distinction is negligible as far as giving people false hopes in mystical advice to a gullible congregation while serving one's own interests. It functions dramatically, other than the intentional thinness of the count's disguise of course. Act II's set places a group of anxious women huddling from the storm in a rather austere castle interior that protects their virtue from the likes of Count Ory, where rather than a bed, the Countess seems to sleep on a stone tomb.

While the setting heightens the contrasts between the repressed women and libidinous behaviour of Ory and his men, the humour in Act II is mostly derived from men, some of them with beards, all disguised as nuns forgetting to act demurely and in a holy way and instead hiking their skirts up and singing boisterous drinking songs. And if that's not funny, I don't know what is. Well, apart from some ménage-a-trois bedroom farce antics of course and Podalydès direction ensures that it is played entirely for as many laughs as it's possible to get out of the situation. In a nice little twist he also makes the Countess not quite as credulous and submissive as you might think, entering fully into the bed-hopping shenanigans which, with Isolier in a trouser role, already has some gender-ambiguous suggestiveness.

If there's a reason why Le comte Ory is actually considerably funnier in performance than it might sound on paper it's got a lot to do with Rossini's music, and it's given a vigorous outing here by Louis Langrée. Sophistication and precision aren't always a prerequisite for a Rossini musical performance, when sometimes what it needs more is fervour and passion, but Langrée's musical direction enjoys the best of both worlds. There's detail in the colouring of the instrumentation as well as precision, pace and passion in the rhythm and rich melodic flavours of the scenes and the arias. The singing, which is extraordinarily challenging for such a light comic piece, is handled with aplomb and character by Philippe Talbot's Comte Ory, who has a lovely lyrical timbre that carries even to the high notes. Julie Fuchs is a sparkling countess, putting her high notes to good use as exclamations and as a release of repressed emotions. The singing and performances are a joy from all the cast, with Gaëlle Arquez an impressive Isolier and Éve-Maud Hubeaux an irrepressible Dame Ragonde.

Links: L'Opéra Comique, Culturebox