Fun at the Opera: Nuns in NY and Aliens in Austin!

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by Paul E. Robinson
It’s not possible to be in two places at once, or is it? Thanks to “The Met Live in HD,” I virtually spent the afternoon in New York enjoying Le Comte Ory, and the evening at the Long Center in Austin, Texas, totally engrossed in Jonathan Dove’s Flight as presented by the Austin Lyric Opera.
Le Comte Ory and Flight are far from standard opera fare, yet both were first-class entertainment, and, in the case of Flight, philosophically interesting too. These two productions had something else in common; each of them involved the birth of a child – one off stage and the other on, but more about that later.
Rossini’s Le Comte Ory may not be as noteworthy as his Il Barbiere di Siviglia or La Cenerentola, but in a production as good as this one by The Met, with a cast almost too good to be true, it doesn’t really matter.
Director Bartlett Sher has a real flair for this kind of piece. Le Comte Ory is essentially a small scale chamber piece best seen in an opera house seating 500-1,000 people. It is really absurd to be producing it at The Met with its 3,800 seats.
Size and space notwithstanding, Sher worked magic. Rather than destroy the work by opening it out to the parameters of the mammoth Met stage, he preserved the essence of the opera by scaling down. To accomplish this, he came up with the ‘conceit’ of doing the opera as a play within a play. He devised a stage or raised playing area using only a small part of the vast Met stage.
What the audience saw was activity on and offstage, as it were, with a stage manager “managing” and his crew moving sets, props, and the curtain as required. How this all looked to The Met audience at the back of the third tier I have no idea, but for the audience in the movie theatre it was an ideal way to present the opera. Of course, the movie audience also had the advantage of being able to see facial expressions and the small bits of business that propelled the production.
Heading the cast were singers ideal for their roles: tenor Juan Diego Florez as the hopelessly randy Count Ory; mezzo-soprano Joyce Di Donato as his page; and soprano Diana Damrau as the Countess Adèle.
Florez was sensational tossing off his high Cs and Ds and Damrau inhabited the coloratura stratosphere as if she owned it. Di Donato, who didn’t get to demonstrate any high-pitched fireworks, did what she always does – made a gorgeous sound and executed the technical turf with the greatest of ease and accuracy.
The ensembles were impressive. With a brilliant conductor at the helm, in the person of Maurizio Benini, these complicated set pieces came off splendidly. The Act I finale had speed, accuracy and most remarkably, beauty of sound.
The most memorable scene in the opera was indubitably the ‘three-in-a-bed romp’ with Florez, Damrau and Di Donato, all of whom must have worked for days with director Sher to get the movements of hands, legs, lips, etc. to coordinate so perfectly with the music. There is definitely potential in this scene for a slapstick and tasteless rendering, but Sher didn’t go there; instead, he gave us a sophisticated and intricate staging, clearly based on Molière and the high art of Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century French comedy.
After a break for dinner – and an update on the Masters from Augusta – Marita and I dashed downtown to see a very different kind of opera.
Jonathan Dove’s Flight was premiered at Glyndebourne in 1998, and for a contemporary work, it has garnered an extraordinary number of productions around the world. It’s a “comic opera,” for the most part, but in no way does it relate to “musical comedy” or the lighter category of musical stage works. The music in Flight is highly complex – particularly in its rhythms – and there are no arias in the usual sense of the word.
As I have suggested, Flight also has a philosophical dimension. It is based on the real life tragedy of an Iranian refugee named Mehran Nasseri, who lived in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for nearly eighteen years. Without proper papers, no country would take him. The story is best known in a 2004 film version by Steven Spielberg (Terminal), but a more reliable source is Nasseri’s own autobiography The Terminal Man.
Dove and his librettist (April de Angelis) have depicted Nasseri’s story not only in its essence, but also as a kind of parable for our times. That said, they focus on the comic potential and downplay some of the most disturbing elements. In real life, Nasseri was trapped by the rigidity of immigration departments in Belgium, France and the U.K. He may also have been mentally ill. He was finally released from his terminal “prison” for health reasons and is now apparently living in a homeless shelter.
In Flight, Nasseri is simply called ‘The Refugee’ and, somewhat oddly, his plight is treated as a secondary issue. More time is spent on the affair between the Stewardess and the Steward, marital problems between Bill and Tina about to leave on a vacation in the tropics, and a couple going to Minsk. There is also an Older Woman, alone in the terminal but dreaming about relationships past, present and future.
All these people, like ‘The Refugee,’ are trapped in a ‘terminal;’ that is to say, their lives as they have lived them so far. Generally, they are unhappy with who they are and with the people to whom they are married or with whom they have a relationship.
Most travelers – but not ‘The Refugee’ – can eventually leave the “terminal.” In Flight, as the characters depart the ‘physical’ terminal at the end of the opera, they also set out with a new sense of themselves and of each other.
One of the most imaginative touches on Jonathan Dove’s part was to score the airport Controller’s part for a coloratura, and correspondingly, on the director’s part, to position her on a very high platform (the control tower) onstage. She is the link between planes and people, sky and earth, and perhaps God and man. Nili Riemer was wonderful in this role, producing soaring lines of melody perfectly in tune with her character.
Equally inspired was the composer’s choice of a counter-tenor voice – an ideal range for a ‘misfit,’ an ‘alien’ – for the role of ‘The Refugee.’ Nicholas Zammit, fresh out of UCLA and a last minute substitute in this production, sang and played this part with beauty, accuracy and a real touch of innocence in his demeanor. Talk about auspicious debuts!
In giving ‘otherworldly’ voices to the Controller and “The Refugee,” both of whom “live” in the terminal but have ‘personas’ that reach out to worlds scarcely imagined or understood, Dove and de Angelis clearly intended to suggest a relationship between these two characters.
This was an excellent cast assembled in Austin by General Director Kevin Patterson, conductor Richard Buckley and stage director Kristine McIntyre.
As usual, Buckley ran a tight ship from the ‘pit’ and deserves a lot of credit for achieving such amazing precision in a very difficult work on opening night.
And the babies I mentioned? The Minsk Woman gave birth on stage in Flight, and earlier in the day, just a half hour before her husband was due on stage at The Met, Mrs. Juan Diego Florez gave birth to a son, Leandro, at home in the Upper West Side of New York. May both newcomers live long and happy lives!
It was a compliment to the stature of this production that composer Jonathan Dove was in attendance. He appeared on stage with the cast to share in the well-deserved applause at the end. I suspect that he was pleased with what he saw and heard.
Incidentally, whoever harbors the notion that Austin doesn’t appreciate classical music should know that on the occasion of the opening night performance of Flight at the Long Center, the Mayor of Austin declared the date “Jonathan Dove Day” in the city!
For Those Wanting More…
While The Met production of Le Comte Ory generally pleased the critics, noted Rossini scholar Philip Gossett was not happy.
Gossett believes that the standard 1828 edition of the score used by The Met is unreliable and misrepresents what the composer intended. In his opinion, The Met should have used the new scholarly version based on recently discovered original performance materials; this version is being published by Bärenreiter and has already been used for a production at the Zurich Opera.
It should be noted that Mr. Gossett is the General Editor of this new edition.
In commenting on this dispute in a recent article in the New York Times (April 8, 2011), Anthony Tommasini points out that the newly discovered ‘original’ scoring is fuller and more complete than the 1828 edition: “The Act I finale, which Rossini lovers know as a madcap ensemble for seven solo singers and chorus, was originally scored for and performed by 13 solo singers and two combative choruses. And for the spirited final choral ensemble of the opera, which comes after a hauntingly romantic trio and has always seemed strangely abrupt, Mr. Gossett and his team have discovered 100 additional measures.”
Kudos to The Met for reviving this neglected Rossini confection and going all out on the casting, but thumbs down for its failure to take advantage of the latest scholarship.
Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: the Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. NEW for friends: The Art of the Conductor podcast, “Classical Airs.”
Photo (above): Maestro Richard Buckley with “Flight” cast members by Marita.


About Author

Former conductor and broadcaster, Paul E. Robinson, is the author of four books on conductors, Digital Editor for Classical Voice America, and a regular contributor to La Scena Musicale.

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