Notes and Editorial Reviews
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When nobody was looking, Le Comte Ory, Rossini’s last comic opera, stopped being a rarity. There had never been a recording of this opera until 1956 (a wonderful set led by Vittorio Gui); now, including videos and a couple of “private” recordings, there are at least 10. The ubiquitous “bel canto revival” may take partial credit, and of course tenors with roulades and high-Cs galore have shown up over the past 30 years in droves, and coloratura sopranos always like to shine in Rossini’s music. But we don’t see 10 recordings
of Zelmira, Sigismondo, or even Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra; CDs of Donizetti’s Emilio di Liverpool are not flooding the market and Bellini’s Adelson e Salvini has no DVD coverage. What is it about “Ory” that has suddenly made it so appealing?
Clearly it is its inimitably lovely and graceful music and the fact that the opera is genuinely funny and silly that has made it such a welcome piece on the world’s stages. Without an overture to speak of–just three minutes of quiet, catlike music that suddenly turns martial before retreating back into whispers and ending on pianissimo pizzicato notes that are barely audible–it can easily confuse those who are accustomed to the Rossini crescendo overture that makes the blood boil.
Of course what follows is an ensemble of great energy, so we know where we are–in Rossini’s world, with toodling woodwinds, sharp string interjections, rhythmic surprises. And then, the Count himself enters, disguised as a hermit, and sings the most French of arias–light and airy, with high notes never lingered-on; rather, they are popped out of the air for a second. Decorations are just a few notes long and are closer to the turns of Rameau than to those of the Italian bel canto.
The entire plot revolves around a randy Count and his men who attempt to seduce the women of a castle whose men have gone to war (hence the one minute of martial music in the “overture”). First he appears as a wise hermit with miraculous powers and later as the leader of a bevy of pilgrim nuns; it is worthy of a TV sitcom–especially when you realize that each act has the same plot, and it’s only the amorous confusions that change. Aside from the sight of men in nun’s habits, which is inherently funny, the humor never really approaches slapstick, but the situations–even the three-in-a-bed trio–are fun.
That having been said, this set, recorded in Zurich in 2011, does not treat the opera with the grace it deserves from its directors, but it is musically delicious. Directors Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier take the opera out of medieval France and place it into a small town in France in the 1960s. Late in the first act, when news comes that a battle has been won, the women raise a huge photo of Charles de Gaulle; this must be the war in Algiers.
The town is on two levels, with the Count living in a trailer on the lower level. We first see him brushing his teeth in his underwear; when the relatively dowdy townsfolk arrive from above in their flowered frocks and everyday clothes he suddenly becomes a blind monk in a cassock. There’s no sense of a castle or royalty; the women seem merely buttoned up and looking for a little “action”, and they explain that the Countess, who has been depressed, wishes to consult the “Hermit”.
A jeep arrives with the Count’s tutor and some soldiers; soon Isolier, Ory’s former Page (a trouser role), arrives as well–he also is a soldier and confesses his love of the Countess to the Hermit, whom he does not recognize as the Count. Since not a word of the libretto has been changed, the 1960s metaphor breaks down: a Count traveling in a tacky caravan is in a provincial town that boasts a Countess followed by his disapproving tutor? Did disguised Counts have former Pages that enlisted in the army? As you can see, it just doesn’t translate.
But here you are, transported to the Zurich Opera house, watching and listening to a performance brilliantly and effervescently played by La Scintilla, a large period-instrument ensemble, and sung by some of the greatest Rossinians in the world, who also know how to act. The Countess Adèle arrives, driving what looks like a new Volkswagen; she is bespectacled and handsomely dressed in black, with white purse and white ruffled blouse buttoned to her neck. Her movements are small and prim.
Once she is in the Hermit’s tackily furnished trailer–a leopard-skin couch and purple, glittery walls–and confesses her melancholy and her attraction to the Page Isolier, and the Hermit advises her to find a lover immediately (revealing a huge sign reads God is Love), she unzips–both emotionally and obviously–to reveal Cecilia Bartoli at her most brilliant. Sexy, hyper-active, singing Rossini’s music with style, accuracy, beautiful tone, and wicked embellishments, you can hear none of her bad habits–no breathy singing, no shotgun coloratura. The Tutor reappears, exposes the Hermit for what he is (at which point the cassock is torn off to reveal the Count in shorts and a red T-shirt with a large marijuana leaf on it), and vocal pandemonium, as only Rossini can create it, breaks out. The second act, placed in the Countess’ handsomely appointed if over-furnished drawing room, works equally well. We cease to care about inconsistencies.
Back to the singing: Bartoli, on paper not a natural for the Countess, is always best in the warm acoustic of Zurich’s opera house, and she not only handles the role’s pyrotechnics with ease, but she sings and acts with wit and warmth. At her side is Javier Camarena, a Mexican tenor who almost stole the Met season first as Elvino in Sonnambula and then in Cenerentola. The agile voice is beautiful and has no fear of heights. Though unimposing in stature, he is a remarkable comic actor; his is a brilliant performance. Isolier is the boyish Rebeca Olvera; Ory’s Tutor is Ugo Guagliardo, with a bass voice that can also trill; at the Countess’ side is Ragonde, her companion, in the person of Liliana Nikiteanu, with a dark, imposing sound. Ory’s friend Raimbaud is sung by Oliver Widmer, whose bass-baritone always impresses.
Muhai Tang leads the whole shebang–and La Scintilla–for what it is: a comic masterpiece made up of lots of working parts, most of them delicate, that often come together in an uproarious fashion. Subtitles are in English, French, German, and Korean. Competition is very strong: the Met’s DVD features Florez, Damrau, and di Donato, and so the choice will ultimately depend on your favorite singers. Both performances are brilliant.
– Robert Levine, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
Le Comte Ory by Gioachino Rossini
Cecilia Bartoli (Mezzo Soprano),
Javier Camarena (Tenor),
Oliver Widmer (Baritone),
Liliana Nikiteanu (Soprano),
Rebeca Olvera (Soprano),
Ugo Guagliardo (Bass),
Sophie Sedlmair (Soprano)
Zurich Opera Chorus,
Zurich La Scintilla Orchestra
Written: 1828; Italy
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