United Kingdom Garsington Opera 2021  – Rossini, Le Comte Ory: Soloists, Garsington Opera Chorus and Philharmonia Orchestra / Valentina Peleggi (conductor). Garsington Opera at Wormsley, 17.7.2021. (CR)
Director – Cal McCrystal
Designer – takis
Lighting Designer – Jake Wiltshire
Choreographer – Tim Claydon
Raimbaud – Jacques Imbrailo
Alice – Milly Forrest
Ragonde – Patricia Bardon
Count Ory – Jack Swanson
Tutor – Joshua Bloom
Isolier – Katie Bray
Adèle – Andrea Carroll
Courtiers – Lelia Zanette, Liam Bonthrone & Matthew Palmer
Le Comte Ory was Rossini’s 38th and penultimate opera but, in spite of being written in French for the Parisian theatre, in certain ways its comical high spirits hark back to the composer’s early operatic farces in Italian. It is fascinating, however, to see how Rossini adapted his musical style to conform more to the requirements of French opera in its setting that is more declaimed and syllabic, with fewer formal set pieces for the singers as arias, but with solo numbers more integrated into the overall structure; and recitatives which are accompanied by the orchestra rather than pianoforte. Had he not retired from composing opera so soon, Rossini might have become an important steppingstone in the development of French opera between Gluck’s compositions for Paris and those of Berlioz, quite aside from his achievements in the Italian form.
Cal McCrystal’s production plays up the farcical elements of the work – saucily so, in this case – to create an energetic, risqué sense of fun which audiences surely need after the hard, dour months of the pandemic. The chorus’s choreography in rhythm with the ebullient music of Act I finale’s is conventional, but as Ory and his knights come on in Act II in disguise as nuns the farce becomes more hysterically engaging – first as Ory unsuccessfully attempts the splits to mimic Adèle’s athletic manoeuvre, and then as the nuns carouse around to the extent that, endearingly, even Andrea Carroll corpsed in this performance. Clearly everybody needed to let off steam, and much better the audience and cast felt as a result. Men dressed as nuns seems to be a perennially amusing scenario, and perhaps with Jonathan Lynn’s film Nuns on the Run at the back of one’s mind, the opera seems even funnier in that the nuns are not on the run from anything (at least not initially, before the crusaders’ return is announced) but deliberately use that disguise as a ploy to gain access to the castle in order to lure Adèle and her ladies. The cast’s colourful costumes add to the display, essentially mediaeval in character, though the extravagant headdresses of the ladies probably evoke more the fifteenth century than the twelfth, but in any case are evidently designed to draw an arresting visual parallel with the nuns’ wimples and so matching the choreography in terms of liveliness.
Some elements of the production are superfluous however. A remote-controlled rabbit whirring across the stage at a couple of points is a silly motif as it seems to make its first appearance in order only to underline the Tutor’s comments about Ory’s amorous proclivities (on account of the creature’s propensity for procreation). It is unclear why Jonathan Bloom explains to the audience, in an added little prologue breaking the fourth wall, that he wished to play Ory (obviously not true as a bass) and is dismayed to ‘discover’ that he has to play the (allegedly) tedious part of the Tutor instead, other than to interpret, perhaps, the latter’s Leporello-like dissatisfaction with his master in the performance proper. Finally, as the crusaders return at the end of the opera, their parading a severed head and corpse as trophies of their battles is in bad taste – the Crusades are a terrible blot upon the history of Christian Europe (the consequences of which remain today) and trivialising their violence serves no useful purpose whatsoever.
The cast are on cue, magnificent, as they sustain the vivacious comedy of the production, none more so than Jack Swanson in his charismatic portrayal of Ory. With his fine bel canto tenor voice, he despatches the music stylishly – he projects all the notes, including the high ones, lithely and confidently, without rawness or sense of forced production in tone. But he is also a winningly assured actor as he negotiates a part which spends most of the time in one disguise or other rather than Ory’s real self, and he is game for this production’s ribaldry by stripping down to his underwear for the scene in Adèle’s bedchamber. Rossini fans should look out for him in the future and hope that his talents might be a spur to Garsington and other companies to programme some of the less frequently heard operas by the composer.
For all the Tutor’s dissatisfaction with Ory, Bloom gives a sonorous and unstrained account of the role providing a point of musical gravitas amongst much high writing for tenor and soprano in the other parts. Jacques Imbrailo’s performance as Raimbaud is also conspicuous for his calm, even nonchalant delivery as he aids and abets his friend Ory.
Carroll is a knowing, coquettish Adèle, who seems to be not entirely unphased by the attentions she receives from Ory in whichever disguise, and to play up to it, to a certain degree. Her sparkling, crisp vocal performance suggests that as she alluringly executes the lines of coloratura which Rossini writes for the part despite the comparatively pared down score elsewhere. Patricia Bardon makes a haughty, schoolmarmish Ragonde, Adèle’s companion whilst, in the trouser role of Isolier, Ory’s page (who has purer designs on Adèle) Katie Bray exudes suitably innocent confidence and precision.
Valentina Peleggi masterfully navigates her way through the nearly continuous score of each act with a careful pacing that avoids sounding cautious but also allows the music’s natural jauntiness to come out when necessary to impel the drama. The Philharmonia Orchestra engage closely with each other, despite their necessarily distanced spacing in the pit, to draw out the sustained (if not quite symphonic) character of the music with much vim along the way. Overall, this is a highly enjoyable performance of an opera that should be better known and adds to Garsington’s growing repertoire of Rossini’s output.
Further performances on 22 and 25 July (for information click here).