Rossini - Le Comte Ory

Metropolitan Opera, New York, Monday January 21 2013

Conductor: Maurizio Benini. Production: Bartlett Sher. Sets: Michael Yeargan. Costumes: Catherine Zuber. Lighting : Brian MacDevitt. Adèle: Pretty Yende. Isolier: Karine Deshayes. Ragonde: Susanne Resmark. Count Ory: Juan Diego Flórez. Raimbaud: Nathan Gunn. The Tutor: Nicola Ulivieri.

“Her voice has a luminous sheen combined with steely resolve that powers both her clarion top notes and her outstandingly rich low register. She delivered some of the most difficult coloratura passages with scintillating precision… She took her curtain call amid a storm of bravos, whistles and whoops.”

That was the New York Times, quoted on the Met’s website, on the subject of Pretty Yende, a South African singer who has made her Met début standing in at the last minute as Adèle. She certainly is remarkably promising. If she isn’t pounced on and pushed into too many rôles that are too taxing, too soon, in five years or so she’s going to be a truly remarkable soprano.

Rossini
On Monday night she was already remarkable enough very nearly to upstage Florez, who, perhaps owing to the bitter cold in (that's right: in) the Met, was stiffer and more monotone than in Paris last season. The ultra-high notes he gamely threw in from time to time (top E?) weren’t altogether successful, either, but when standards are so high (and the weather so cold), you don’t complain. With Karine Deshayes (looking curiously like Roberto Alagna) once she’d warmed up as far as possible in the chilly house, we had an excellent principal trio. So, although from the stalls the orchestral sound was obscure (as at the Bastille) and Benini’s conducting was nit-pickingly cautious, vocally this was an excellent evening - albeit only Yende and Florez had remotely understandable French.

It’s a pity, therefore, (and a surprise to me, compared with his excellent South Pacific) that Bartlett Sher’s production should be so gormlessly idiotic, like something cooked up by juveniles at school, reducing the singers to silly cartoon characters. The set, at the outset, looks promising enough: a wooden stage upon the stage, a high-gabled brick wall at the rear, some fake trees, elaborate roof timbers and wheels and pulleys to lower props down – a set for a decent Falstaff, maybe, though some of the props have a Disney-esque look to them (Beauty and the Beast). The costumes are candy-coloured combinations of medieval wimples and armour and the 18th-century, with hats. So far, so acceptable. But the “acting” is just goofy and played for laughs - with what the French call "gags à répétition" : how many times did Florez' hands stray over Adèle's breasts or bottom? - ridiculing the unfortunate singers. Belly-laughs sometimes ("le comble" the French might say) drowned out their singing as well.

Opera buffa doesn’t have to be this way, as we saw with Florez himself in La Fille du Régiment. A shame the Met didn’t call on Laurent Pelly for Ory: we might have had a remarkable evening all round.

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