Last year, when Bartlett Sher’s production of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown opened on Broadway, Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times, “The distractedness of Women the musical mostly feels born of indecision and even boredom, as if it kept getting tired of whatever it was doing.” The show promptly closed, a surprising failure after the tremendous successes Mr. Sher recently enjoyed with South Pacific, The Light in the Piazza and Awake and Sing, all justly acclaimed for their vibrant clarity.
His opera productions, though, tend to have more in common with Women on the Verge, feeling indecisive and even bored rather than confident. Much has been made at the Metropolitan Opera of Mr. Sher’s Tony Award-winning gift for theatricality, but in opera, his theatrical instinct often feels a bit off, as though he doesn’t quite get the art form.
There’s a similar uncertainty about his production of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory, which had its Met premiere last week. A gleeful farce about a young libertine who dresses his gang up as nuns to infiltrate the castle of a countess he wants to seduce, the opera should sparkle. But despite a starry, game central trio of singers–Juan Diego Florez (sounding a little thin), Diana Damrau (her voice increasingly rich) and Joyce DiDonato (dusky-toned and charismatic)–the Met’s production, uninspiringly conducted by Maurizio Benini, never quite takes off.
Mr. Sher sets the opera in a theater within a theater, or more precisely on a generically rustic stage within a theater. The set is spare, dotted with the mystifying movable trees that the director has recycled from his production of The Barber of Seville and dominated by a looming, bland white back wall; on the other hand, the costumes (by Catherine Zuber) are extraordinary.
There is an actor playing a kind of 18th-century stage manager who bangs a big stick on the stage to start the show; the rest of the time he busies himself with the set elements. The characters on occasion toss him a prop that they’re no longer using. He’s there to be adorable, but the result is to wink at the opera rather than just performing it. At one point, old-fashioned wind and thunder machines conjure up Restoration dramaturgy, an effect at odds with the Met’s stated desire not to present this opera as a “relic.” Eighteenth-century theater artists didn’t rely on those techniques because they thought they were cute; at the time, they were cutting-edge. In 2011, though, it’s just another wink.
Of course, the production’s hokey, meta-theatrical imagery is meant to tie in to the illusions perpetuated by Ory, the “theater” he’s putting on. We get it. But in Mr. Sher’s hands, it is not the kind of insight that brings us closer to the opera.
It’s unclear why Mr. Sher has chosen to update the piece from the Middle Ages to the 1700s. There is certainly no need to hew to a composer’s chosen period, but there should be a reason for a switch. Mr. Sher’s move, though, is arbitrary, and, even worse, he loses the fact that the piece takes place during the Crusades.
This is a society whose men have been away for years dying in a distant conflict. The wartime setting permeates the piece; the engine of the plot is the knowledge that at any moment, the men will all be returning home from Jerusalem. Farce works when there is some sense of real danger, real stakes, underlying the frolic. The opera’s gender-bending sex play takes on its urgency and humor, its almost anxious vivacity, because suffering and sadness are in the air.
The work’s emotions are hilarious, but they’re hilarious because they’re sincere. The fake “siege” of the Countess’ castle by Ory and his men is meaningful and weird and funny because it is a twisted parody of other, very real sieges. As in all jokes, the characters attempt to expiate deep fears by recasting those fears in an absurd context. For Mr. Sher, though, the opera is all about those spindly trees and some easy cross-dressing gags.
The operas of Rossini’s period inhabit an odd middle ground between the utter stylization of the Baroque and Classical periods and the (relative) naturalism of later Verdi and Puccini. Because of that sensibility, so foreign from our own, these works are difficult to direct nowadays. Since we are lucky enough to have extraordinary singers for these operas, the Met is sensibly programming a lot of them. But the company’s recent productions have been frustratingly resistant to taking these operas seriously, even when they are high-spirited or lighthearted. When the operas’ subtle ironies are cloaked in far more blatant conceits, these productions become merely jokes about jokes, intermittently charming but exhibiting the opposite of the relevance and theatricality to which they so desperately aspire.