Almost 200 years after its world premiere, Rossini’s Le Comte Ory arrives at the Met this month, with a trio of the world’s great bel canto singers and an award-winning creative team. Juan Diego Flórez stars in the title role opposite Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato. On the eve of the opera’s company premiere, we spoke to director Bartlett Sher, conductor Maurizio Benini, set designer Michael Yeargan, and costume designer Catherine Zuber about the challenges and rewards of bringing this effervescent comedy to the Met for the first time.
Bartlett Sher, Director “Le Comte Ory tells the story of a count during the Crusades, when all the men have left to fight. Only a few of them are left behind, plus all of the women. One of those men is the Count Ory. He’s a scoundrel, probably in the mode of a Don Giovanni, who spends the entire opera trying to get as many women as he can into bed—particularly the countess. The opera comes late in Rossini’s career, just after he moved to Paris. The first act is what people would be very familiar with. It’s quite Rossini-like, full of life, vibrant, with a grand finale. But the second act is different, stylistically. So the opera stands in a unique place.”
Michael Yeargan, Set Designer “This momentous historical event called ‘The Crusades’ is really just a theatrical device to get the men out of town, setting up the situation for the count and his amorous adventures. And Rossini and his librettists use this device to tell a very funny story with incredibly beautiful and sophisticated music.”
Maurizio Benini, Conductor “Compared to other Rossini operas, there is a greater harmonic richness in Le Comte Ory, as well as a more sophisticated search for the timbre. In Italy the most important thing was the melody, but the French taste was much more attentive to harmonic richness. For the French audience the orchestra is not just there to accompany—it is as much part of the drama as the singers are.”
Bartlett Sher “I think the second act of Le Comte Ory has some of the most beautiful music Rossini ever wrote. The crowning achievement is this unbelievably beautiful trio sung by the countess, the count, who is dressed as a nun, and the page, who is a boy but is played by a mezzo-soprano. It’s some of the most glorious music I’ve heard in any opera... At the heart of my approach to this piece is a love of theater. I thought that it would be wonderful to set it inside a theater and to actually watch the mechanisms of old-time theater operating—thunder sheets and wind machines and candlelight and watching the drops being pulled in. It’s not about ‘backstage,’ or about two different worlds. It’s about how theater works to make something beautiful. So you’ll see all the little stage techniques at work, you’ll see the prompter, you’ll see these things in motion and feel the singers making a piece of theater.”
Michael Yeargan “I’ve worked with Bart on plays, operas, and musicals now, and the process is totally different on each one. Every project finds its own approach. In looking through all the research for Le Comte Ory, I came across some pictures of the Teatro Farnese in Parma, built in 1618, that were taken right after it had been bombed during World War II. There was something so beautiful and sad about this amazing building with such a history that had been so badly damaged. These pictures led us into an exploration of the theatrical techniques of the time. Many of the means for shifting scenery and lighting seem quite naive and charming to us today. Our research also led us to the commedia dell’arte, where plays were performed on a platform with curtains with scenes painted on them that pulled across to tell you where you are. It was totally presentational and non-illusionistic. You were constantly reminded that you were watching a play and aware of all the techniques used to tell the story. So somehow, in an inexplicable way, all these images merged together to form a look that felt right for the telling the story of Le Comte Ory.”
Bartlett Sher “We’ve constructed a very theatrical environment for the piece, making the Met a little smaller, pulling in the scale and bringing the wall as far in as we can, so that it happens in a space that is not so vast. We’re using the old theater in Parma as the frame, the footprint for our stage, with a raised platform on which all of the events happen. It’s very elegant and simple—a single tree, a door, a window, a drawbridge, a bed.”
Catherine Zuber, Costume Designer “Bart always has a very clear and inspirational vision for his productions to make them fresh and interesting. He’s directing Le Comte Ory as a performance within a performance. We have an active backstage life around our principals and chorus. So I looked at the costume design from the perspective of a company, culling from various time periods. The silhouettes of the peasants for example come from French traditional regional dress. I have always found the extreme shapes of the headwear of this period so delightfully interesting. Since the opera is sung in French, this approach seemed perfect. The color palette of the costumes was inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights.”
Bartlett Sher “The first act takes place exclusively in daylight. It’s outside the countess’s castle, the retreat of the hermit, his little den in the woods. And the second act, which is inside the castle, where the men arrive disguised as nuns and everybody’s in secret, is all at nighttime. It’s a private, sacred place, with the women in their nightgowns. It will be all in candlelight. So the distinction between day and night is one of the ways I’m trying to get a sense of the difference between the musical flavors of each act.”
Maurizio Benini “The entire work is a succession of amorous impulses, ambiguities, misunderstandings, and repressed desires, culminating in the love trio, which is really the true finale, coming just before the quick conclusion. It’s quite a revolutionary structure that departs from the classic closing ensemble. It would make little sense to think of this trio as a ‘hit number.’ It’s part of the fluid continuum of the opera and couldn’t be fully understood outside the tight fabric of the plot. Rossini is working to break the classical musical structure, but at the same time he presents his audience wih a familiar dramaturgical situation: the comedy of misunderstanding, dating back to the 18th century and beyond. And yet, this is not just a recasting of the well-known ‘en travesti’ scenes of the buffo operas of the past. In what other opera do you find the tenor dressed as a woman, trying to have sex with the soprano, who is actually the mezzosoprano, playing a man who’s acting as if he were the soprano?! ‘C’est lui qui nous a joués tous—It’s he who made light of us all.’ That’s what Ory says about Isolier. Rossini might have said the same about all of us!” —Edited by Philipp Brieler
Le Comte Ory opens March 24. Bartlett Sher, Juan Diego Flórez, and other members of the cast and production team will participate in a MetTalks conversation on March 10 at 6pm in the auditorium.
This feature was first published online in February 2011 andd in the Met's Playbill in March 2011.