The legions of New York opera buffs who now can’t talk about anything but Javier Camarena will be happy to know that there’s now a DVD release of their new favorite tenor in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory available. The performance was actually filmed in 2011 in Zurich, and will be of immense interest not only to Camareniacs, but to Rossini scholars and to fans of Cecilia Bartoli, who limits her staged operatic performances outside her artistic home in Zurich. 

This video of Le Comte Ory differs from the other available versions because it is the first one to use a “critical edition” that includes music that was sung in the original performances in Paris but dropped in later performances. The printed standard score used the streamlined Comte Ory instead of the original Paris edition. This critical edition was prepared by Damien Colas and has been heavily championed by musical scholar Philip Gossett, who made his dismay clear that the Met declined to use the critical edition for its own 2011 production.

There are some noticeable differences: for instance, the Act One finale now is an ensemble with 13 soloists, instead of the septet. This performance also uses period instruments, a change immediately discernible in the overture, which has a somewhat harsher sound. However, the ear adjusts quickly, and Muhai Tang conducts the entire performance with exactly the right amount of sprightliness.

The production is by Moishe Leiser and Patrice Caurier and it’s an update to postwar France, and the village is full of randy girls waiting for the men to return from WWII. The personregie is excellent, but the concept itself is a mixed bag. Countess Adèle is now a rather uptight upper-class lady, and Isolier a horny officer. Le Comte Ory is a “blind” religious shaman who moves from town to town in a trashy trailer.

The concept provides some nice sight gags (such as a gaggle of well-dressed girls participating in an orgy in Ory’s trailer, causing the trailer to shake from the sexual exertions) but part of the joke of the original Le Comte Ory is that the supposedly religious and cloistered Countess Adèle finds herself in a variety of sexually compromising situations. Leiser and Caurier direct Adèle so that she’s already straddling Isolier during their very first encounter in Act One. I also felt like this story might have made more sense if set after World War I? In WWII weren’t the French occupied for the majority of the war?

The second act dramaturgy works better. It’s set in Adèle’s pretentiously decorated house (complete with expensive china sets and grand piano), and Bartoli has a lot of fun acting very much the Lady of the Manor before she succumbs yet again to sexual shenanigans in the famous trio. The duet between Ory and Adèle in Act Two is delightful, as is the wine party amongst Ory’s “nun” entourage. The trio is exceptionally well-directed. It’s not the three-way gropefest of Bartlett Sher’s Met production. Instead, the homoerotic element of Ory being aroused by Isolier is clearly delineated.

The production seems designed to showcase the talents and charisma of Bartoli. Her familiar attributes are all highlighted by the production: her earthy sense of humor, her expressive, radiant face (those eyes!), and of course, her unique voice which has the warmth and duskiness Rossini so adored in mezzo-sopranos combined with a free upper register that allows her to sing roles traditionally assigned to sopranos.

Countess Adèle provides few opportunities to Bartoli to show off her famous machine gun coloratura, and I actually like that. I think that her technique, while awe-inspiring in its ability to squeeze the maximum amount of notes in as little time as possible, can actually sound like a circus trick. When she’s asked to sing a clean adagio line, you can just bask in the unique beauty of her voice. “En proie á la tristesse” shows some delightfully original ornamentations.

However, the fact that this is a Bartoli vehicle causes some unorthodox changes to casting. The trouser role of Isolier is now sung by Rebeca Olvera, a rather high, light soprano. I think the traditional casting of a high soprano as Adèle with a mezzo as Isolier is more dramatically and musically convincing. Olvera’s lovely soprano blends well with both Bartoli and Camarena.

The supporting cast is solid without being spectacular. Ugo Gugliardo (Governor) really should not attempt the trills he doesn’t have—listening him try in “Veiller sans cesse” was painful. Oliver Widmer (Mr. Bartoli) as Raimbaud did a decent job with his second act patter aria “Dans ce lieu solitaire.” Liliana Nikiteanu (Ragonde) has a warm, mellifluous mezzo.

And how is everyone’s new favorite tenor, Mr. Camarena? Well, he’s spectacular. His warm, sweet voice also has an usual amount of flexibility and a secure top up to D. Comparisons to Juan Diego Flórez, who starred in the Met’s Le Comte Ory, and is set to take over the Met’s run of Cenerentolas, are inevitable. Camarena’s voice I think is much more beautiful than Flórez’s, but Camarena doesn’t have Flórez’s effortless coloratura. You hear some aspirating with Camarena. But both are first-rate tenors. Here is a side by side comparison of their opening aria “Que les destines prospéres”:

The two tenors give very different interpretations of Ory. Part of this is the production and direction, but part of it is just who they are onstage. Flórez has a naturally rakish persona. He often strides onstage, smirks, and the audience knows that all the ladies will be cray-cray about him. It’s well-known that he refused to wear drag for the trio in the Met production, which made the trio make less sense dramatically, but did drive home the point that any woman will not mind having Juan Diego grope her.

Camarena looks much more unassuming, and that’s part of his charm—Marilyn Monroe famously said, “If you can make a woman laugh, you can make her do anything.” Camarena is more convincing as the sweet little nun whose hand “accidentally” touches a lady’s breast. He’s less convincing than Flórez as Ory the lady-killer who rips his hermit outfit and makes hearts aflutter. They are both amazing.

Opera video libraries are funny. There are a host of Aïdas available on video and all but a few are dreadful. Yet Le Comte Ory now has three excellent videos available—the old Glyndebourne video with Annick Massis that takes a very traditional approach to the opera, the Met video which has a silly production but excellent singing by its leads (Flórez, Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato), and now this video from Zurich. Dump out all those crappy Aïdas and get all three Le Comte Orys: that’s my advice!