Le Comte Ory - Metropolitan Opera, 5 April 2011
No, not the big screen version, the real thing. Tuesday night's performance was filmed as a dry run for the big HD event, with the cameras a distracting presence on the periphery, and what I assume was clumsy amplification lending a pronounced echo to certain voices. As so often at the Proms, I had the lurking feeling that those of us in the house were a second class audience, a mere applause machine dragged in to provide 'atmosphere' for the consecration to hard copy. And despite some truly fabulous singing, the show was never quite engaging enough to shake off the doubts.
Bartlett Sher has taken all too literally the dictate that a good production should reference three time periods - the setting, the writing and the present day. Disguised as a nun, Rossini's lubricious Comte Ory sneaks his way into the castle and eventually the bedchamber of the virtuous Comtesse Adèle, while all good Christian men are off on the Crusades. So Sher gives us consciously cod-medieval costumes stuck on a 19th century stage-within-a-stage, with all the mechanical trappings of the Victorian theatre visible to our 21st century eyes. Sher tries to show what Rossini himself might have seen, while exposing the artifice that would have created the illusion.
Why? Who knows. A pre-emptive strike against the authenticity brigade perhaps - if so, undone by the failure to use the latest critical edition of the score. Sher doesn't take the idea anywhere. As with his equally unilluminating Barbiere (whose portable door frames and wheeled trees it borrows), it's just more cutesy decorative detail. The audience, it's fair to say though, simply lapped it up. Favourite judging by the applause (oh yes - this is the Met) were the paper butterflies on sticks, more usually employed to distract bawling pram-bound infants.
I'd guess most of the rehearsal time was spent on fussily detailed chorus action, the telltale sign of a director with nothing to say and a poor eye for the stage picture. As in Barbiere, Rossini gifts the smart director with a selection of liars, cheats, hypocrites and manipulators ripe for vivid characterisation. But it was hard to tell how much psychological acuity the principals brought to their parts when they were constantly surrounded by mugging maidens and hyperactive bearded nuns.
The singing at least was fantastic. In an age when it's impossible to cast repertoire staples like Otello, Troyens and Tannhäuser even adequately, our compensation is a select number of bel canto experts who can meet the challenge of some of the trickiest roles ever written. Three of the best were on stage - Juan Diego Florez as the wicked Count, Joyce DiDonato as his page and love-rival, Isolier, and Diana Damrau as the object of their affections, Adèle. Florez's laser-bright tone, Damrau's dramatically purposeful coloratura and DiDonato's effortless agility compensated for all the other shortcomings, and even for Maurizio Benini's listless conducting.
What a pity that so many of those who had chortled through the tawdry effects leapt to their feet the very second the music ended, shoving their way towards the exits without the least gesture of appreciation for these fine performances.