14 April 2011

Being in Love Means Never Having to Say You’re Ory

How not to stage a bed trick

Rossini’s comedy Le Comte Ory, the latest high-definition simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera, prompted me to return to the Aquaboulevard, a shopping mall just outside the periphery of Paris, and my mood couldn’t have been merrier. The star of the evening was Joyce DiDonato, my first glimpse of whom was in a video (Mark Adamo’s Little Women, from Houston Grand Opera) projected onto one entire wall of a hotel suite: she knows how to work a close-up, and the screen at the Aquaboulevard is even bigger. For Le Comte Ory, her co-stars were Juan Diego Flórez and Diana Damrau, names to be reckoned with, and the production, new this season, is a solid, sold-out hit with Met audiences. The New York Times review made the front page of the online edition, and really, how often do my friends get that sort of treatment — without any use of the phrases “high-powered automatic weapon,” “statewide manhunt,” or “troubled loner”?

But the production itself left me dissatisfied. Everyone at the Aquaboulevard seemed to love it, and you don’t argue with a hit — but I really wanted to argue. Too few of director Bartlett Sher’s choices made much sense, and while I hope that some of the very busy stage business is more effective in the house (perhaps when viewed from the Family Circle) than it was on screen, his work never convinced me that he had a clear vision of or even much appreciation for this little-known gem of an opera.* There were times I wished I were listening to the radio broadcast instead.

Mad about the boy: Joyce as Isolier, Diana Damrau as Adèle

The plot of Le Comte Ory concerns the titular count (Flórez), a rake who takes advantage of the Crusades — while most of the other men in France are out of the way — to seduce as many ladies as he can. The primary object of his lust is the Lady Adèle (Damrau), but she’s too virtuous to be wooed openly, and moreover she’s in love with Ory’s page, Isolier (Joyce). So Ory aims to improve his chances by disguising himself, as a fortune-telling hermit in Act I and then as a nun in Act II.

Much of this is and ought to be great fun, and Flórez has proven memorably entertaining in other Rossini operas where he’s disguised (Barbiere, Cenerentola). So when his hermit impersonation turned out to be unfocused, broad, and busy, you know the problem lies with somebody else. (His nun impersonation was much defter and far more successful.)**

Appearances may be deceiving:
Flórez as Ory, disguised as a hermit, with Damrau in Act I

Take the setting. The libretto specifies the Crusades, but Sher updates the production to the late-18th century, in a somewhat ramshackle theater. Why? Our simulcast hostess, Renée Fleming,*** suggested that the intention was to create the illusion of a theater in which Rossini himself might have seen the opera, in 1828. But performers in those theaters wouldn’t have worn street clothes from 50 years before; they’d have worn costumes. Folks in Rossini’s time had their own ideas of what the Middle Ages looked like, and the Met could have had great fun with them. (Feathered helmets!) The Met’s costumes (by Catherine Zuber) were lovely, in fact, but they didn’t have anything to do with anything. (They were interchangeable with the costumes for Sher’s production of Barbiere. Who knows why?)

Is the Met audience supposed to feel a greater connection to 1828 than to the 12th century? And why a theater? During an intermission interview with Fleming, Sher gave a reason: he didn’t want to build a realistic castle set. So this is the best alternative you can think of? The Met already has one recent production of a bel canto opera — La Sonnambula — set in a theatrical milieu. The “it’s only a play” attitude all but announces that the repertory is so artificial that it can’t be taken seriously on its own terms. (And it may reflect the Met’s artistic ambivalence about bel canto: James Levine finds the music unchallenging to conduct, but the operas are popular and some star singers are awfully good at them, so the Met produces the shows anyway.)

Le Comte Ory is an unfamiliar work to most audiences, as I say, and it had never been performed at the Met until this season. There was no reason to pile up the distancing effects, as Sher did, and at times I wished that one hallmark of 19th-century theater had been observed: namely, I could have done without the stage director altogether.

The sound of Rossini’s music: Flórez in Act II

The refusal to play Ory straight (as it were) was manifest in Sher’s staging of the Act II trio, in which Ory thinks he’s making love to Adèle, who coos sweet nothings to him while he’s really fondling Isolier. In the plot, it’s a stalling device, to preserve Adèle’s virtue until reinforcements arrive and the rest of the menfolk return from the war; in literary terms, it’s a standard bed trick, with variations for the comedy’s sake: Isolier and Ory are wooing, not screwing, and Adèle helps out, but chastely. (Shakespeare’s bed tricks, in All’s Well That Ends Well and Measure for Measure, the most famous in literature, are less complicated than this one — and they’re also less funny, by design.)

Sher stages the scene as a polysexual ménage à trois, in which Ory quickly realizes that he’s making out with Isolier, and in which Adèle takes an active role, too. As my friend John Yohalem has pointed out, this raises all sorts of questions about the characters without ever answering them, and it demolishes the two central conceits of the entire story, namely Ory’s womanizing and Adèle’s chastity. But it was titillating, and it didn’t seem to diminish the audience’s enjoyment.

Nun and games: Flórez and Damrau in Act II

The singing was gorgeous, though, and the trio found Flórez at his smoothest, most ingratiating best. (It’s not only because he’s cute that he’s become a matinée idol.) All evening, I enjoyed Damrau’s lush tone and, particularly, her almost orgasmic explosion of coloratura in Act I, when she admits her pent-up love for Isolier. Sher elicited an appealing brashness from baritone Stéphane Degout as Raimbaud (exactly what I missed from this singer at his New York recital debut, several years ago), and mezzo Susanne Resmark’s imperious Ragonde proved winning. But Sher couldn’t create a consistent character for the Tutor, who caromed from moment to moment. (How does the Tutor feel about Ory? Sher never made up his mind.) At least bass Michele Pertusi sounded as if he knew what he was doing.

When she wasn’t being knocked to the ground, Joyce seemed to be operating in a different theatrical world — one that made sense. She looked terrific, and she swaggered with real conviction. Her ease and accuracy in the music, her excellent French diction (all those trips to Paris are paying off!), and her fine grasp of color and nuance left me happy beyond my powers to describe.

And there were often moments when I just wanted to bask in the wonder of the moment. A friend of mine was singing, halfway around the world, and I could see and hear her perfectly. What an age of miracles we live in!

*NOTE: Sher also directed the musical adaptation of Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, by which I was less than thrilled, as you may recall. More happily, Sher directed the Met’s Barber of Seville, in which I saw Joyce a couple of seasons ago.

**Flórez assisted in the delivery of his son, just minutes before the performance began.

***I still think the hosting portions of the Met simulcasts are too scripted and restrictive — but Fleming came off relaxed and natural-sounding, the best of the three hosts I’ve seen. (Deborah Voigt and Natalie Dessay were the others.)

No comments: