Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

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Oops...I Did it Again

April 09, 2011

Diana Damrau, Joyce DiDonato, and Juan Diego Flórez Photo: Marty Sohl/MEt 2011

It might seem impossible to render the combined acting and vocal talents of Juan Diego Flórez, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato inconsequential in an opera production. But Bartlett Sher has a particular talent for just that in the feckless and dull staging of Rossini's Le Comte Ory, which is currently running in repertory at The Metropolitan Opera and which I saw in the house on Saturday. Granted this frothy work, one of the composers last, is not a high point in one of the greatest careers of any opera composer. A comedy written for the Paris Opera in 1828, it used musical material from his earlier Il Viaggio a Reims in a new story about a count, Flórez, who attempts to seduce an innocent single countess, Damrau, by first disguising himself as a hermit and then a nun. The count has competition for the countess' affections with his page, Isolier, played by DiDonato. That's about it with much of the running time occupied with characters running about in shock as a response to the kind of mild groping that might startle a character in a Nickelodeon sitcom. Le Comte Ory makes Die Entführung aus dem Serail look like Götterdämmerung in its gravity.

Still there are plenty of operatic examples of slight material making for great opera performances, so what went wrong here? First was Sher's very tired play-within-a-play conceit which is neither especially informative nor funny in its own right other than to provide an excuse for the 19th-century costumes for a story set around 1200. (As if one was needed.) This is Sher's third production for the Met and it felt familiar in a bad way. The chorus runs about back and forth to little end in a manner that is more agitated than funny. There are the bits that should seem clever, like the tilting bed the three principle characters cavort on during the penultimate scene, but come off as forced and mildly confusing. Now this is not to say that Damrau, DiDonato, and Flórez don't display some fine acting and vocal chops. Flórez, who became a first time father just before Saturday's curtain, made the most of his hermit and nun costumes. The chemistry between all three was warm and affectionate.

And vocally all three were impressive. Every time I see DiDonato she amazes me a little more and the depth of her involvement in this portrayal was admirable. Damrau's coloratura is in fine shape and she sounded bright and lovely. I should also mention three supporting vocalists Michele Petrusi, Stéphane Degout, and Susanne Resmark who all made the most of their contributions to the performance. But musically, they weren't receiving all the support they needed from the pit. Conductor Maurizio Benini kept things dragging along and under-paced all along the way, never rising much above tepid. Sadly, Le Comte Ory, one of the Met's few completely original productions this year, turns out to be a bit of a fizzle. There is some lovely singing, though, so you can still catch the show in New York through April 21.



Uh. Juan Diego's "girly" flouncing in Act 2 read pretty grotesquely on the HD screen. That said, he can really keep it together vocally on so little sleep.
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