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18 April, 2011

Comte Ory. Rossini. Met Opera (cinema then theater).

Comte Ory. Rossini. Met Opera. Sat 9th (cinema), Thurs 14th (theatre) April 2011

For the third time now I have been extremely privileged to see an opera in the theatre AFTER having first seen a telecast of the same production. Prior to Comte Ory I had seen Rheingold and Tosca on the screen followed by visits to the ‘real thing’.

My notes on the operas in New York are now almost superfluous since anyone with a computer can listen in on Sirius broadcasts for almost any Met performance (and free public radio on Saturdays during the season). Suffice it to say that both live and electronic, Florez is incomparable, Damrau and DiDonato are magnificent and the comic production is a great irreligious romp, raunchy and with a great comeuppance at the end. It might be subtitled ‘Nuns on the Run’.

As readers would know, once every few weeks there is also a video transmission to participating cinemas across the world (43 countries, Egypt is the latest, we were told). These are Saturday matinees streamed in ‘high definition’ direct in the Americas as well as to Europe, where it is Saturday evening with the time zone. Due to the ungainly time difference, they are streamed to Australia and the Far East a week or two later at a more suitable hour. This necessarily loses that immediacy and ‘danger’ factor intrinsic to direct ‘live’ transmissions.

Only those in or near New York City have the choice for Met productions. The rest of the opera world may attend a cinema telecast or listen to a radio or CD/DVD recording. Hence I felt very lucky to be able to attend numerous live performances during a stay of almost four weeks in New York (see below for the operas I attended, with comments on: ).

The most obvious difference is the immediacy of non-amplified voices, live in the theatre. Opera is about voice, after all. And opera singers of all things need to have a voice which can be heard from the back of a large theatre … as well as the rest. See my blog notes on stunt people being used and how much more obvious it is in the theatre: see Tosca and Rheingold notes also comparing live with HD viewing. There were also ‘stunt’ people in Comte Ory in the form of three men dressed as nuns who did some crazy synchronised steps including one calamitous spill on stage. I don’t believe that the principals were replaced as they were in Rheingold and Tosca on numerous occasions.

I was invited by a donor colleague to a lavish patron session at the Met on the afternoon of the HD telecast of their new production of Comte Ory on Saturday 9th April. Rather than just a panel introduction (which happened in March before the season started) it was in fact a fully catered brunch with all the bells and whistles. Bagel, cream cheese and lox, quiche Lorraine and salad served with champagne, petit fours, tea and coffee an hour prior to the start of the opera. During the vittels we heard an insightful speech by Sarah Billinghurst who is the Met Artistic Director (and a Kiwi). She spoke about their approach to repertoire generally and in particular, she said that they aimed to mount one new work each year … meaning an established opera which had never been done at the Met. This year was Comte Ory. I wondered if Anna Bolena was the new one for next year.

We were also given a few snippets about the Met’s policy on folio versions and translations in response to a rather critical piece in the New York Times on the subject that day (‘Timing is everything!’). The company had decided against the ‘new’ translation simply because it was not available when they programmed the opera three to four years ago. Changing text or music in such circumstances has contract and artistic implications and had to be rejected. Ms Billinghurst said that this did not mean that the company would not consider using the new translation in the future ‘by all means’. The cost of using a modern copyrighted versions of works is also a consideration when, as she reminded the room filled with generous donors (myself excluded but including my generous hostess) that the Met’s box office receipts only cover half of the budget so all expenditure has to be closely vetted. The ‘classics’, of course, come free of patent or royalties.

Ms Billinghurst then discussed the ‘good news’ that Mr Florez had agreed to sing at successive seasons at the Met in the foreseeable future. She emphasised that after a brief foray with the Duke from Rigoletto in South America, Mr Florez had determined to stay within his current fach by singing the lighter bel canto roles which he had started eight seasons ago with Barber of Seville (a season I heard him do Almaviva on two occasions - it was extraordinary). Mr Florez had also decided against singing in I Puritani.

Our speaker told us that the Comte Ory was one of Rossini’s last operas. The already very famous composer lived in London for a time but was lured back to Paris with a lucrative contract. He composed Voyage to Reims for the coronation of Charles X but withdrew the work in order to recycle six numbers for Comte Ory. His final opera, just after this, was William Tell, written when he was 38 years old after which he retired and wrote little else but charming songs.

Comte Ory will never be one of the ABC of popular operas, nor does it contain any classic concert items. However it is crammed full of wonderful melody and may contain Rossini’s “busiest” music. The act I finale is brilliant. It has some orchestration reminiscent of the Fledermaus overture as well as hints of Semiramide and Fille du Regiment.

We were told that Joyce DeDonato has been offered the role, despite it having no discrete aria. The role had huge vocal and dramatic challenges which suited her talents … and she had worked with the other principal artists already with great success. Ms Damrau likewise seemed ideally suited to the colossal coloratura and hilarious comedy situations. The opera has a night time bedroom scene in which there are three people in a bed but only two of them know they are not a couple. For once Mr Florez is on the butt of the joke and he also “loses the girl” and Ms Billinghurst told us that Ms DeDonato was the one who gets away with the girl - ‘two girls go off together’ she said mischievously. She then gave a rap for Maestro Benini who is very much at home in this sort of repertoire.

The production is original and well executed as a play within a play in an 18th century proscenium theatre. The telecast is introduced by Renee Fleming and I would recommend it to anyone.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..

Queen of Spades
Romeo and Juliette
Comte Ory
Otello (Carnegie Hall, Chicago Orchestra with Muti)

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