Bartlett Sher and his Broadway design team have come with an all-purpose production for that Rossini rarity “Le Comte Ory,” being given its company premiere. Their take on the frothy story of a count (Juan Diego Florez) who impersonates a hermit and then a nun in order to bed a countess (Diana Damrau) is so generic that the physical production could be used for “Lohengrin” or “Don Giovanni” or “Suor Angelica,” if Catherine Zuber could take in all those nun habits that the male choristers wear.
Staging an opera as a play within a play looked tired when the Met did it back in the 1970s for another French novelty from the 19th century, Meyerbeer’s “Le prophete.” The stage is big and bare, there’s a raised platform, a few sticks of timber make for a false proscenium, and usually there’s a shower curtain of sorts that stagehands unfurl to bring the action downstage for more intimate scenes. What opera is this? Take your pick.
Bare isn’t just empty-looking, it’s also nearly impossible for actors to be funny or play farce on a unit set, by Michael Yeargan, that is this enormous and, again, empty. Classic screwball comedies often take place on a train or a ship, because the characters are confined, and that confinement makes their desperate attempts to resolve conflict amusing.
Sher does set up the necessary comic restrictions late in “Le Comte Ory” with the sublime trio “A la faveur de cette nuit obscure.” He has taken liberties with the libretto and put the count and the countess in bed with the count’s page (Joyce DiDonato in a pants role), who also has the hots for the countess, as well as the count and vice versa. (That’s the “liberties” part, which is fine, because it’s more intriguing than what Rossini and company had in mind back in 1828.) Anyway, it’s a big bed and Yeargan has it tilt so the audience gets a great view of all the groping and gyrating. It’s funny, because the quarters are extremely close, the three characters are struggling, yet they’re looking to get off and they’re going through major lengths to consummate.
Also, that big bed gives their voices an acoustical shell, something that is entirely lacking elsewhere in this physical production. Florez sounded like a pipsqueak early in the evening. Then Damrau and DiDonato, with their first arias, made the same first bad impression. Their fault? Maybe they were all suffering from agoraphobia.
These three singers are attractive and game performers, but they’re not inspired actors. To carry off this kind of a bare-bones approach, you’d need their voices plus the acting genius of a Mark Rylance (“La Bete”) or a Geoffrey Rush (“Exit the King”).
Zuber’s costumes are sumptuous throughout.