Juan Diego Florez and Diana Damrau
in Le Comte Ory
(© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Juan Diego Florez and Diana Damrau
in Le Comte Ory
(© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
When you see how Tony Award-winning director Bartlett Sher treats the first act of Gioachino Rossini's little-known 19th-century opera Le Comte Ory, you will think you know why the Metropolitan Opera management has taken over 180 years to get to it. However, when you're gifted with the hilarious second act -- in which you'll marvel at Sher's deft hand and the singing of leads Juan Diego Florez, Diana Damrau, and Joyce DiDonato -- you'll wonder what's taken them so long.

Based on a play by librettists Eugene Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre, the plot of Le Comte Ory is as moronic as can be -- even by opera standards -- although it admittedly provides some good, clean fun before the final fade-out. The eponymous count (Florez), a womanizing 13th-century troublemaker, has waited for the Crusaders to quit their unnamed country for the Crusades and leave behind the ladies.

Setting his sights on lovely Countess Adele (Damrau), Ory initially attempts to woo her disguised of a bearded clairvoyant hermit. When the impersonation is revealed, he gets up in act two as Sister Colette, the leader of a group of men also masquerading as nuns, and seeks refuge in Adele's capacious hang-out.

Abetted by his equally mischievous friend Raimbaud (Stephane Degout) and page Isolier (a cross-dressing DiDonato), who also has his eye on Adele, and with Adele watched over by wiser companion Ragonde (Susanne Resmark, making a strong house debut), Ory's shenanigans continue throughout the opera, notably in a scene where he's stolen into Adele's bedroom. This is not what you would call an emotionally gripping narrative.

Fortunately, Rossini knew how to write music that lifts the spirits and carries them along. He supplies a moody overture and several taking melodies in his first half -- ending with an irresistible septet, backed by chorus -- and then pulls out all stops for a second act consisting of richly orchestrated scene after scene, the highlight of which is the trio "A la faveur de cette nuit obscure" for Ory, Adele and Isolier that shows the composer at his transporting best. Better still, conductor Maurizio Benini really gets it.

Sher, for his part, seems to have decided that getting around the opera's basic foolishness is to stage it as a show-within-a show, and has inserted an 18th-century stage manager and various stagehands carting props, none of it lending much atmosphere, save for the on-set sound effects provided for a storm. (The one way the idea of mixing periods pays off is by having inspired designer Catherine Zuber to send out sumptuous costumes.)

In the second act, though, Sher stages a menage a trois that instantly becomes one of the most amusing Met sequences ever in which he gets Damrau, DiDonato, and Florez into one bed -- who then wrap themselves around each other while singing as flawlessly as they have throughout the opera. And while Florez's fans have long know about his ability to toss off high Cs, they now also know that the handsome fellow takes great delight in showing himself off as a physical clown.