Rossini

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Rossini
LABELS: Decca
ALBUM TITLE: Rossini: Le Comte Ory
WORKS: Le Comte Ory
PERFORMER: Javier Camarena, Cecilia Bartoli, Rebecca Olvera, Carlos Chausson, Oliver Widmer; Zurich Opera House Chorus; Orchestra La Scintilla/Muhai Tang; dir. Moshe Leiser & Patrice Caurier (Zurich, 2011)
CATALOGUE NO: DVD: 074 3467; Blu-ray: 074 3468

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These two recent Zurich productions are staged by the directorial duo of Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier, who regularly work with the same team of designers. They are brought together here in two Rossini operas both starring Cecilia Bartoli and with the conductor Muhai Tang in charge of the Zurich Opera’s period-instrument orchestra, La Scintilla.

The two operas themselves are very different. Le Comte Ory was the composer’s final comedy, written for Paris in 1828 to a risqué French text. Here it is updated from the time of the Crusades to France in the post-World War II era – designer Agostino Cavalca enjoying himself hugely with period costumes, which look even more stunning on Blu-ray than DVD. I’m not sure, though, that Leiser and Caurier don’t go one step too far with the sex-farce elements of the piece: the joke surely lies in the eponymous Count’s failure to seduce Countess Adèle (played by Bartoli), rather than in sexual success. But the directors appreciate the sly wit of the three-way cross-dressing seduction attempt in the Act II trio, which is far too complicated to explain in a short review.

Musical standards are high, with Tang and the orchestra bouncing the score merrily along. Bartoli sends herself up as a straitlaced noblewoman who turns into a carefree hedonist; vocally, she is in more consistent voice than on some recent recordings, with neither the higher nor the lower register giving her any trouble. In the title role, both Javier Camarena’s facility with high notes and his accomplished comic acting will have Juan Diego Flórez looking to his laurels – though the Mexican’s coloratura is not as flawlessly neat as the Peruvian’s. Rebeca Olvera makes a dapper, vocally proficient Isolier, while Bartoli’s husband bass-baritone Oliver Widmer is an appropriately crusty if tonally woolly Tutor. Good fun all round.

Not everyone will be familiar with the score, which is apparently performed in a new critical edition that takes account of performing materials surviving from the very first production. The other piece, Otello (1816), is far rarer. Throughout most of the 19th century, though, it was regarded as one of Rossini’s finest works, especially the third Act, with its strong Romantic atmosphere and air of genuine tragedy. Verdi’s version of the subject (1887), however, replaced it in the standard repertoire, while literary types complained ever more loudly that the libretto Rossini set made nonsense of Shakespeare.

This particular criticism was unfair, because the Bard did not invent the Italian story and indeed Rossini’s librettist, Francesco Berio di Salsa, used intermediate sources that offer a far keener focus on Desdemona and Rodrigo, to worthwhile dramatic effect. The result may not be Rossini’s greatest score, but the stagecraft and sheer intelligence of the Leiser/Caurier production, set in modern times and acted with skill and imagination by the entire cast, make an extremely good case for it.

Many viewers may nevertheless find the blacking-up of John Osborn to play the title-role troubling, to say the least; the directors clearly wanted to point up society’s racism, adding a dumb show in which a black waiter is maltreated. Despite that, Osborn sings with appreciable technical command and dramatic insight.

So does Cecilia Bartoli, once again in shining form as Desdemona, while Javier Camarena returns in the beefed-up part of Rodrigo, seizing his every opportunity; the same can be said of Edgardo Rocha as the sinister Iago and Peter Kálmán as Elmiro, Desdemona’s controlling elder statesman father.

That the piece stands up so well is due not only to the cast and production; credit is also due to Muhai Tang, who certainly knows how to make Rossini’s score sound vital and dramatically engaged.

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George Hall