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The Rake Outmaneuvered

Lyric Opera
11/13/2022 -  & November 16*, 18, 22, 26, 2022
Gioachino Rossini: Le Comte Ory
Lawrence Brownlee (Le Comte Ory), Kathryn Lewek (Comtesse Adèle), Kayleigh Decker (Isolier), Ian Rucker (Raimbaud), Mirco Palazzi (Tutor), Zoie Reams (Dame Ragonde), Lindsay Reynolds (Alice), Lunga Eric Hallam (First Courtier), Wm. Clay Thompson (Second Courtier)
Chorus of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Michael Black (chorus master), Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Enrique Mazzola (conductor)
Bartlett Sher (stage director), Kathleen Smith Belcher (revival director), Michael Yeargen (set designer), Catherine Zuber (costumes), Brian MacDevitt (original lighting designer), Chris Maravich (revival lighting designer), August Tye (choreographer)

K. Lewek, L. Brownlee (© Todd Rosenberg)

Rossini’s penultimate opera, Le Comte Ory, has become more popular since the rediscovery of another of his operas, Il viaggio a Reims. The latter, more a pièce de circonstance, and more a long scenic cantata than an opera, was composed in 1825 on the occasion of the coronation of King Charles X in Reims, when Rossini was the director of the Théâtre-Italien, where the work was premiered. It served as a showcase for the opera stars of the day, hence the plethora of starring roles in Il viaggio a Reims. The manuscript, assumed lost, was rediscovered and reassembled in the 1970s by musicologists Janet Johnson and Philip Gossett. The opera was then revived, thanks to conductor Claudio Abbado, in 1984, at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro, and was a colossal success. It has since deservedly been reinstated into the operatic repertoire, and is performed every year at Pesaro. Le Comte Ory, premiered in 1828, is Rossini’s penultimate opera and his first “original” work in French. It used much of the music from Il viaggio a Reims; nearly the entire first act features repurposed music, while most of the second act is original.

The story centers around Countess Adèle, a young widow whose brother, the Count of Formoutiers, voyages with his knights to the Crusades. The young woman takes a vow to admit no man into her castle until the return of her brother. More than likely, she commits this vow to avoid her feelings for her cousin, Isolier. Afflicted with melancholy, she seeks council with a Hermit in the village, who is none other than the philandering Count Ory in disguise. The “Hermit” advises her to have a love affair to assuage her sad heart, but warns her not to fall for Isolier, the object of her desire, as he is the depraved Count Ory’s page. The Count’s suspicious tutor unmasks the “Hermit,” but the Count has another plan to seduce Countess Adèle.

The creation of Le Comte Ory followed an interest in the Middle Ages in post-revolutionary France, exemplified by operas such as Grétry’s Richard Cœur de lion (1784) and Boieldieu’s Jean de Paris (1812). Le Comte Ory is based on Pierre-Antoine de la Place’s tale, Le Comte Ory et les Nonnes de Formoutiers, itself based on a Medieval romance from the region of Picardie in which Comte Ory, a seducer in the Don Juan tradition, manages to enter a convent with fourteen of his knights disguised as nuns. Each fake nun is hosted in a resident nun’s room. Comte Ory, disguised as Sister Colette, is hosted by the mother superior. Nine months later, fourteen babies were born in the convent. As the sexual mores of the nineteenth century were more conservative than the more factual Middle Ages, librettist Eugène Scribe changed the story to fit the period’s taste. In the opera’s second act, Ory and his knights seek shelter in Countess Adèle’s castle, disguised as pilgrim nuns trying to escape the depraved Count Ory and his knights. They fail in seducing the ladies of the castle, as their disguises are discovered by Isolier and they are chased out of the castle just before their husbands return from the Crusades.

Berlioz, disciple of Weber and Gluck, was no great fan of Rossini’s. Yet he considered Act II’s trio to be Rossini’s masterpiece and one of opera’s sublime moments. And that it certainly is, both musically and dramatically. Countess Adèle is informed of Comte Ory’s subterfuge by Isolier, her cousin, admirer and also the Count’s page. They both decide to play a trick on the presumptuous seducer. When Sister Colette/Comte Ory claims fear and begs the Countess to sleep in her bed, Isolier lies between the two in the darkened room. A trio of sublimated desire transpires: the Countess and Isolier in love, yet abstaining from love‑making due to the epoch’s values, in contrast to a lecherous count caressing the young Isolier while believing he has finally conquered the virtuous countess. It’s a clin d’œil to Act IV of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, where yet another lecherous count believes himself in the arms of the maid Susanna, who is actually none other than his own wife.

Unfortunately, Broadway stage director Bartlett Sher was invited by New York’s Metropolitan Opera to stage several comic operas, including this production of Le Comte Ory, revived here by the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The idea was to bring a fresh approach to opera. Alas, what Sher brings is vulgarity. Instead of witnessing a moment of sublime unrequited love contrasting with depraved carnal desire, we have a vaudeville spectacle of “coitus nocturnus,” sex in the dark. The three are having an orgy, semi‑aware of their counterparts’ disguises, i.e. the Countess is enjoying intimacy with both the Count and his page, and the Count and his page are enjoying intimacy with each other as well as with the Countess. Though the Lyric’s revival stage director, Kathleen Smith Belcher, has mercifully toned down the vulgarity, the “sublime” trio was still a disappointment.

That Lyric Opera of Chicago would borrow such a production remains a mystery. Almost any other production from a provincial theater in Europe would have been more faithful to the essence of this subtle comedy. The idea is that this production is “a play within a play,” a playwright/stage director in eighteenth century garb is in the process of creating/directing the piece. The characters are dressed in costumes from disparate epochs, from the Middle Ages (Dame Ragonde), the Renaissance (courtiers), the Eighteenth Century (Countess Adèle, Isolier, an “Infanta” by Velázquez is one of the castle’s noblewomen) and even the Twentieth Century (French maids dressed in costumes reminiscent of Picasso’s circus paintings). Probably, these miscellaneous characters are images floating in the mind of the playwright/stage director who is unsure of the epoch in which the action takes place. While the theatrical device of the creative process doesn’t clash with the opera’s plot, it doesn’t particularly enhance the proceedings either.

Luckily, the Lyric’s choice of singers was much more felicitous. In the supporting roles of Dame Ragonde, Countess Adèle’s lady in waiting, mezzo Zoie Reams had a warm and imposing voice, reflecting both her authority and devotion to her mistress. Bass Mirco Palazzi, a veteran in bel canto and Mozart on European stages, sang with style, and his basso cantante was perfectly spot on for the role. In the leading roles, mezzo Kayleigh Decker impressed in the trousers role of Isolier. Her light mezzo voice conveys the page’s youth and passion, in a role reminiscent of Le nozze di Figaro’s Cherubino and Der Rosenkavalier’s Octavian. In her deportment on stage, Decker was totally convincing as a timid young man. Renowned Rossini tenor Lawrence Brownlee showed a natural comic verve, though thankfully without excess. His light tenor is appropriate for the role. He had no difficulty with the role’s high notes and coloratura, but the timbre isn’t as pleasant as it once was. The star of the show was unquestionably soprano Kathryn Lewek as Countess Adèle. The opera came to life with her entrance. She subjugated the public with her purity of voice, facility with stratospheric high notes as well as with her acting. She portrayed a fickle, temperamental eighteenth century noblewoman rather than a virtuous noble lady from the Middle Ages, but that was due to this production’s choice of staging.

Ossama el Naggar



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