So much of operatic history is a rush. Think of Rossini, the most famous of musical procrastinators, locked in an attic until he had finished the overture to La gazza ladra needed for the première on that same night and churning out Il barbiere di Siviglia in three weeks. In recent times, the mind turns to the great enterprise of Wasfi Kani, building a usable opera house in the grounds of West Horsley Place in just eleven months. Dorset Opera Festival performs a similar feat every year, setting up shop in Bryanston School, and drawing a crowd of young singers keen to take part in their Summer School. Roughly two weeks after arrival, the curtain goes up for their first production. Students sing on stage along with established singers, offering them a valuable learning experience as well as bringing opera to a part of the country that rarely has access to the art form.

Jennifer France (Countess Adèle) and Nico Darmanin (Count Ory) © Dorset Opera
Jennifer France (Countess Adèle) and Nico Darmanin (Count Ory)
© Dorset Opera

Dorset Opera’s 2017 season opened with a production of Rossini’s Le Comte Ory of 1828, in which Rossini, true to form, recycled part of his earlier opera, Il viaggio a Reims. It’s a fantastic piece, full of humour, but other than a recent concert performance by Chelsea Opera Group, it hasn’t had many outings in this country in the last ten years. David Phipps-Davis’ production is refreshingly unpretentious; the Count, disguised as a hermit, wanders around feigning blindness behind sunglasses and a white stick, conveniently needing to grope women to find his way around. Costumes were period and Steve Howell’s simple set for the first act was a simple, but pleasant tableau evoking the French countryside, the exterior of a castle with a functioning drawbridge at the centre, while the second act relocated us to its warmly decorated interior. Phipps-Davis’ greatest achievements was his skilful management of a large cast and the great humour he drew from them. Timing was precise, expressions were arch and the handling of the Act 2 trio, with a hilarious co-ordinated threesome, not to the mention the appearance of a large (stuffed) sheep, was supremely funny.

The chorus was on excellent form for first night: diction was clear, delivery confident and musicality obvious, but what really struck me was the quality of physical performance, with lifelike interaction between the singers. The ‘nun scene’ was beautifully brought to life by the men, who clearly threw themselves into their habits with gusto. For such a professional performance put together in so little time, the whole chorus deserve congratulations.

It’s always a pleasure to see a cast that’s solid across the cast; my find at this production was soprano Jennifer France, singing Adèle. She made it plain very quickly that she has a talent for bel canto; the higher register was assured and the top notes clean. Tone was warm and her ability to skim the voice down to pale thread was a treat. It was a generous vocal performance, nicely supplemented by a strong stage presence and credible acting.

Jennifer France (Countess Adèle) and Sarah Pring (Ragonde) © Dorset Opera
Jennifer France (Countess Adèle) and Sarah Pring (Ragonde)
© Dorset Opera

Nico Darmanin threatened to steal the show as the Count with acting that was deliciously over the top. It’s a role that calls for excess, and hopping forwards wielding his fake breasts, stepping into lovers’ embraces or sneaking into bed, Darmanin nailed the role, visually showing his own amusement at proceedings. There was a slight concern initially when Darmanin seemed to run out of steam at the end of “Que les destins prospères”, when flexibility and volume dropped, but it appears to have been a minor blip. He doesn’t have the biggest voice, but his top was solid and there was an elegance to the performance that matched the Count’s rank. Isolier was sung by Heather Lowe, who sang the role in the COG performance mentioned above, and had the volume and vibrancy to do the role justice, showing a glimmering quality in her tone. A little more rounding at the higher register will help soften top notes that occasionally sounded unpleasantly aggressive.

Steven Page, another veteran of the COG performance, sang the role of the Tutor with authority. Slightly more assured than in the London performance, Page’s technique was strong and brought due comedy to the role with the character’s fondness for the bottle and long stockings. In more minor roles, Szymon Mechlinski deployed an attractively dark baritone as Raimbaud and Sarah Pring did a good comic turn as Adèle’s maternal companion, Ragonde. Dorset Opera Festival Orchestra gave a lively performance under José Miguel Esandi; a little rough in places, but perfectly respectable and there was no absence of enthusiasm. This was a production at which Rossini himself would have chuckled.