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Le Comte Ory

Opéra Comique

In Review Comte Ory lg 318
Le Comte Ory at the Opéra Comique, with Julie Fuchs, Philippe Talbot and Gaëlle Arquez © Vincent Pontet

WHAT BETTER WAY to welcome in the New Year than with Rossini’s Comte Ory? The new staging of the opera, by actor/director Denis Podalydès, a Sociétaire of the Comédie-Française, is a coproduction of the Opéra Comique, Liège and Versailles. Louis Langrée conducted the period instruments of the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées and the choir Les Éléments at the Salle Favart for Rossini’s only comedy written in French. (Even after renovation work, the dry acoustics of the Salle Favart remain challenging.)

The team of Podalydès and Langrée had already scored a success here in 2009, with André Messager’s Fortunio. Langrée chose to present Damien Colas’s new critical edition of Comte Ory, which offers particularly full and compelling takes on the work’s finales. After a roughly played overture, the conductor’s energetic enthusiasm galvanized the players into a well-paced performance, in which only the brass section remained recalcitrant.

For his essentially classic production, Podalydès and his designer, Éric Ruf, chose to transport the action from the medieval crusades to the time of the work’s premiere in 1828, using the colonial war in Algeria as the military backdrop. A few projected images aside, this was not underlined with any socioreligious points, but the libretto sounded at odds with this historical context. Comte Ory himself was more priest than hermit—the identity imposed by the censors of Rossini’s day. Ruf’s designs involved a pulpit and religious artifacts for Act I and an austere medieval monastery for Act II, in which a stone slab transformed into a bed for the naughty trio, only to be thrust open to provide an escape route for Ory and his gaggle of men in their nun disguises. The Count himself seemed slightly embarrassed by the power that his guru-like preaching produced. He needed the encouragement of his sidekick Raimbaud to confront the crowd of bodice-ripping groupies, dressed in splendid costumes from the elegant hands of Christian Lacroix. 

Podalydès had obviously worked closely with his singers, and as a result the cast played with precision, avoiding vulgar vaudeville and concentrating on the dichotomy between Protestant morality and hot-blooded sensuality. The beautiful countess, once freed from her grief, exhibited crazed nymphomania: she was only too eager to undress the dedicated page Isolier and seemed cunningly aware of Ory’s antics. 

The cast assembled for this festive occasion on December 29 included the best of the rising generation of French artists. Tenor Philippe Talbot did not treat the role of Ory as a vehicle for the virtuoso display of high notes but graced the score with some beautiful soft singing and progressed from rotund priest to hairy nun and finally elegant count with comic acuity. Comtesse Adèle received an outstanding performance from soprano Julie Fuchs, whose humorous, spiky approach to the coloratura lent her music a witty touch of Offenbach’s Olympia. The unbridled sexuality of Fuchs’s Adèle had the right touch of madness, barely controlled by the strictures of the Dame Ragonde of Ève-Maud Hubeaux, who sang with rich mezzo force. The lovestruck page Isolier, who joins Comte Ory and Comtesse Adèle in bed, was sung by mezzo Gaëlle Arquez, who not only looked terrific in her travesti costume but also sang with a blossoming generosity. (This artist should surely be heard more often in Paris.) 

There was good support from the Gouverneur of bass Patrick Bolleire, who, despite some sonorous low notes, needed to pay more attention to the accuracy of the florid writing, and Jean-Sébastien Bou, who brought manipulative authority to Raimbaud—although this repertoire is not best suited to his expressive high baritone.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

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