Rossini (Le) Comte Ory
Le Comte Ory is the first great French-language comic opera. A late work (Paris, 1828), sensuous, witty and exquisitely crafted, it has always been something of a connoisseur’s piece, Rossini’s Falstaff, you might say. Vittorio Gui’s celebrated Glyndebourne account (EMI, 7/57 – nla) ought by rights to have had a place in EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century series. Perhaps Naxos will scoop it up when the copyright lapses.
Classic sets can obscure the view. John Eliot Gardiner’s fine 1988 Lyon Opéra recording rather languished in Glyndebourne’s shadow and the new set, recorded live at last year’s Pesaro Festival, could well have suffered the same fate. Not that it is aimed at dyed-in-the-wool collectors. The selling point is the Ory, Juan Diego Flórez, and very striking he is, too. He begins rather severely, more Almaviva than Ory. Would one miss the sly charm and vocal allure of Juan Oncina on the Gui set? Not entirely. Flórez has terrific presence, a well-nigh flawless technique, and a keen sense of the French vocal style. He comfortably outplays Gardiner’s John Aler.
Not that Aler was much helped by his production team. Ory may be the master of the subversive running commentary but that is no excuse for placing him to the rear of the stage picture. DG’s engineers make no such mistake.
Jesús López-Cobos, an old Rossini hand, conducts robustly but with style. He is not quite in the Gui class in terms of buoyancy and wit but there is marginally more lift to the rhythms than is sometimes the case with Gardiner. He overdrives the Act 1 ensemble in which the villagers come to Ory with their requests but paces the action within the celebrated nocturnal Trio in Act 2 to perfection. Both finales are clearer in the Gardiner studio recording than in the live set, which is a bit of a romp, the chorus fuzzily distant; and good as López-Cobos’s soloists are, the flawless tuning of Gardiner’s cast in the a cappella Act 1 septet and Act 2 pilgrims’ prayer is not to be gainsaid.
It would be nice to have a French Raimbaud but Bruno Praticò, an old hand, knows how to ring the changes in a strophic patter-song. The only problematic comprimario role is that of Ory’s Tutor. His Act 1 aria, a bespoke commission for the great French basse chantante Nicolas Levasseur, is a devil of a piece to bring off, after which the singer needs to revert to light comedy when he recognises Ory and prepares to discomfit him. Glyndebourne’s Ian Wallace cut the aria and did the comedy to perfection; Gardiner’s Gilles Cachemaille is superb in the aria and more than adequate in the comedy. On the new set, López-Cobos races through the aria in a vain attempt to disguise the fact that Alastair Miles is not entirely at ease with it; after which, Miles plays the recognition scene more like a village constable than a wise and wily tutor.
Gardiner’s Countess Adèle is Sumi Jo, a consummate stylist with a flawless technique. The new Adèle is Stefania Bonfadelli. The voice has a warm, almost mezzo-ish colour, though she is a true soprano with – as she never ceases to remind us – a brilliant top E flat. I find her singing lacking in charm and spontaneity, not least when she adds period ornamentation. The duet with Ory, ‘Ô bon hermite’, includes a top E flat that comes at us like a train out a tunnel. As for the decoration in the stretta of the Act 1 finale, that, surely, is de trop.
The Gardiner is stronger all-round. The new set has colour, life, dash, brio, and a measure of wit. It also has Juan Diego Flórez. Enough to be going on with? Absolutely. An Ory for the connoisseur? Not entirely.