It Takes A Thief
John C. Borden Auditorium
04/21/1999 - and 23*, 25 April 1999
Gioacchino Rossini: Le Comte Ory
Stephanie Woodling (Isolier), Ji-Yeon Lee (Countess Adele), Lucy Strauli (Ragonde), Christopher Pfund (Ory), Daniel Gross (tutor), Keith Smith (Raimbaud)
Manhattan Opera Theater
Steven Crawford (conductor)
Nothing if not brash, Rossini spent his creative life stealing great material. Usually the main victim was himself, but sometimes he dipped into the classics as well. Le Comte Ory, obscure even within the relative unfamiliarity that most serious opera goers have with this great genius' work (there is a lot more than the Barber), is a delightful compilation of stolen booty from Mozart and whole sections lifted from Rossini's own Il Viaggio a Reims. Ory was actually quite popular when it was a new work, not only appearing regularly in Paris but also mounted by Liszt at Weimar and written of favorably by that great critic (and usually not a friend to Rossini) Hector Berlioz. It is a cross-dressing farce that can best be described as a combination of the Mozart/da Ponte trilogy (from which it methodically steals from all three) and any Monty Python sketch that comes to mind. Even for the Manhattan Opera Theater this is a difficult work. It combines the florid ornamentation and pyrotechnical vocal technique of coloratura cavatina/cabaletta with that most difficult of stage challenges: actually funny comedy. True to their illustrious history, the adventurous company pulled it off to create a wonderfully enjoyable evening.
It is natural when watching young people to think about their future possibilities. Stephanie Woodling, whose glorious mezzo was heard here two years ago in the Mahler "Resurrection" Symphony, has the potential to actually make it in the highly competitive world of grand opera. Her voice is a wonder of smoothness (I have never heard her strain for a note) and natural beauty and last evening she revealed what a fine actress she has become. She is also very physically attractive (this shouldn't matter, but of course it does) and possesses that larger-than-life quality which focuses the audience's attention on her whenever she is onstage. Isolier is the consummation of Cherubino's fantasy. He is a man played by a woman who, disguised as a woman, seduces another woman (Adele) and is separately made love to by a man disguised as a woman (Ory). He is also, like the Mozart servants, totally in charge and here Ms. Woodling's acting abilities came through and her charisma was perfect for this psychological center of everyone's attention. Perhaps it was the contrast to the less trained voices around her, but she put me in mind of the young Flicka von Stade and from me this is praise of the highest order.
Christopher Pfund, called into service at the last minute, was a superbly comic Ory. Mr. Pfund has previously displayed his humor as Manhattan's Albert Herring, where the tessitura is almost as high as in this killer role. Unfortunately there are very few males around who can sing these unnaturally high notes successfully (part of the joke, lost on modern audiences, is Rossini's send-up of the only recently departed castrati) and this young tenor would have been better served with a smooth falsetto than trying to emulate the authentic voce di testa that was really beyond his range. But he and his male companions more than made up for any vocal shortcomings with their finely directed antics and the combination of stage director Michael Patrick Albano and chorus master Scott Rednour can be justifiably proud of the show-stopping drinking song of the nuns (actually the chevaliers) that is at the center of Act II.
Ji-Yeon Lee was a little heavy-voiced for my taste but still came through as a sympathetic Adele. Lucy Strauli was excellent in the vocally crucial contralto part of Ragonde, whose passages as a woman are often much lower than Ory's as a man. Daniel Gross was overmatched in the basso part but was the fine leader of the rollicking comedic players. The orchestra was, as always, first rate and the sets of Karen TenEyck were as comical as the tale itself (the cardboard army arrives at the end to great howls of laughter).
It is the greatness of Rossini that the moments of sublime wonder come in the midst of the lowest farce. The trio A la faveur de cette nuit obscure is a moment that never fails to enchant (Berlioz considered this variant of Mozart's Soave sia il vento as Rossini's masterpiece and even adapted it in his own Les Troyens). The three female voices (Ory is playing a woman in this scene) combine in ethereal splendor and the synaesthesia of experiencing this gorgeous religiosity in the midst of a scene of Sapphic lust is the delightful essence of Rossini. Woodling, Pfund and Lee were great in this passage and it is the moment I will carry with me when the rest of the piece is only a dim recollection. We are lucky to have such a dedicated troupe in New York and their product is often more satisfying than that of the "professionals" at Lincoln Center.
Frederick L. Kirshnit