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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Opera Review: Purple Reign

Pretty Yende rocks Le Comte Ory.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pretty Yende (center) stars with Juan Diego Flórez (with beard) in Rossini's Le Comte Ory.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera. 
The Metropolitan Opera season is a marathon. As such, there are always has cancellations due to injury, illness or personal and music differences. So when the company announced that the untried South African soprano Pretty Yende would be stepping in for Nino Machaidze as Countess Adele in all performances of the company's revival of Rossini's Le Comte Ory, audience members held their breath.

Two weeks ago, Ms. Yende was an unknown quantity. She applied herself and learned the role quickly in time for the opera's Jan. 17 premiere. On that opening night, she tripped and fell on her entrance. However, on Jan. 29, the singer proved herself to be more than an adequate substitute, but a genuine bel canto star in the making. At this performance, Ms. Yende seems to have settled into the formidable solos and ensembles written into this late Rossini score, taking her voice on a high, easy flight above the stave and remaining there for most of the next three hours.

Written in 1828 at the end of Rossini's composing career (he retired from the genre one year later at the age of 39) Comte Ory is an the first of this Italian composer's output for the Parisian stage. (Much of its music is recycled from an earlier work, Il Viaggio a Riems.)  In addition to the composer's usual brand of sparkling musical wit, the score shows Rossini indulging in the smooth lyric expression made possible by a French text and a succession of church modes for the opera's brand of peculiar religious humor.

Ms. Yende has a small, compact soprano that she wields with the accuracy of a fencing master. Whether gracing cabaletta passages with airy fioratura or engaging in a comic tryst with co-stars Juan Diego Flórez and Karine Deshayes, she sounded absolutely comfortable. She is visibly learning that her pert presence and glittering high notes have the ability to thrill, and even hypnotize the audience. She 's a good actress. Spending most of the night as "straight man" to Mr. Flórez, she only cracked a smile once as the tenor flounced around the stage in a whirling nun's habit. But who wouldn't laugh at that?

In addition to playing dress-up (first as a holy man, then as a nun) to win a night with the soprano, Mr. Flórez faced his own set of vocal challenges with absolute aplomb. The singer's voice has hardened a little since his Met debut, and occasionally compresses when reaching for the very top notes where most other tenors fear to tread. But his suave presence and experience with this role mean that you generally don't notice these peccadilloes, focusing instead on his capering and dazzling runs of notes.

The third strand of the opera's central love knot is Isolier, the Count's over-eager, over-excited page who emerges as his rival in the second act. Ms. Deshayes was both brilliant and convincing in this trouser role, serving as suitor to Ms. Yende and comic foil to Mr. Flórez. She has a fresh presence and a youthful energy that suits the part. Excellent support was provided by baritone Nathan Gunn, bass Nicola Ulvieri and mezzo Susanne Resmark whose scene with the Count's drunken followers dressed up as nuns drew the evening's biggest laughs.

Comte Ory remained an opera for connoisseurs until recent years. Bartlett Sher and the Metropolitan Opera's 2011 production (seen here) did much to rescue the work from the dusty shelves of the library. Mr. Sher's production remains a fascinating exercise in 19th century stagecraft, with massive wooden cranks, shaking thunder-sheets and a finale lit entirely by candle-light. If it is an anachronism at the high-tech Met, it remains a welcome one.

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