“Who is Count Ory?” director Laurent Pelly is asked in tonight's programme notes. “A degenerate nobleman who wants to jump on anything that moves,” he replies. “And types like that exist.” Rossini's comic score is full of spice and wit, and though the cork stayed firmly in the bottle for tonight's overture, the drama sparkled effervescently by the end. Juan Diego Flórez was the protagonist in this evening's co-production from the Teatro alla Scala and Opéra de Lyon, and his spirited performance never made it difficult to believe that such characters as the Count exist.

Juan Diego Flórez (Le Comte Ory) and Aleksandra Kurzak (Adèle) © Brescia/ Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Juan Diego Flórez (Le Comte Ory) and Aleksandra Kurzak (Adèle)
© Brescia/ Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Rossini's penultimate opera combines a libretto from Scribe's original play with music borrowed from Rossini's own Il viaggio a Reims to relate the Count's dogged pursuits of the wives of Formoutiers, who await their husbands' return from the Crusades. Ory has his eyes set on Countess Adèle in particular, and he gains access to the her castle dressed as a hermit. When this disguise is foiled, he tries again with an entourage of male nuns.

This production takes a modern setting, featuring the Countess as a comical, modern-day Madame Bovary - bourgeois and bored in the provinces - and the Count as dreadlocked fakir (and later a nun) with fix-all solutions to the villagers' problems. In Act I's village hall, bustling villagers await the arrival of the fakir, though Raimbaud, Ory's sidekick, has trouble exciting them about his arrival. When the fakir does turn up, open-armed and cross-legged (a posture which it seems he can only assume with the assistance of Raimbaud) the villagers capitulate in a collective euphoria, though they are less taken with the oddball Governor, Roberto Tagliavini's performance of which nevertheless earnt him a justifiably rousing curtain call. Pelly switches things up for Act II, taking us into Countess Adèle's surreal apartments without background or walls. The stage slides to give access to three separate rooms, a film-like scene-switching effect, where the slightly weird setting provides appropriate shades of strange for a plot that becomes increasingly bizarre.

Stéphane Degout (Raimbaud) and Juan Diego Flórez (Ory) © Brescia/ Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Stéphane Degout (Raimbaud) and Juan Diego Flórez (Ory)
© Brescia/ Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

Le Comte Ory is one of the less frequently performed of Rossini's operas, which may be a reaction to the especially difficult vocal parts he gives to the main characters (though a string of recent productions at major opera houses does suggest a revival in the work's popularity.) Tonight's Count and Countess may have drawn blanks in a couple of their arias, but this did little to detract from a pair of impressive vocal displays that oozed with personality. For the most part, Flórez dispatched fiendish cascades in his firm tenore di grazie with ease, and his interpretation was invested with an accompanying loveable boyish energy. Aleksandra Kurzak's fertile soprano purrs with plenty of horsepower, and her Countess had an abundance of vampish chutzpah, using Rossini's embellishments suggestively to communicate more than a frisson of excitement as the Cherubino-esque Isolier made attempts up her skirt.

A notable standout was the chorus, whose detailed stagework energised the performance. As villagers impatiently queueing for the Count's blessing, they were a lineup of well-crafted personalities. As wine quaffing male nuns, they were avuncular figures who, with a shake of the habit, were having too much fun. This is straight out of the Jonathan Miller school of direction, where the negligible gesture is paramount. Such realism was the source of much of the comedy, as the recognisably quotidian contrasted peculiarly with the more absurd aspects of the drama.

The orchestra under the direction of Donato Renzetti bristled with life, ultimately, though they had felt a tad reserved in the opening portions. There were strong moments from Rosanna Savoia's Alice and José Maria Lo Monaco's Isolier, whilst Stéphane Degout's vivd baritone was irrepressible as Raimbaud.

The performance was not without its imperfections. The Governor's aria “Quel honneur dʼêtre gouverneur!” was out of time with the orchestra, and some of Act I's visual jokes stalled uncomfortably. But Rossini was nicknamed “Signor Crescendo” for his 'storm in a teacup' moments, where the music builds from nothing to a frenzy, and rather appropriately, the entirety of tonight's performance possessed a similar trajectory.

Juan Diego Flórez (Ory), Aleksandra Kurzak (Adèle) and Josè Maria Lo Monaco (Isolier) © Brescia/ Amisano | Teatro alla Scala
Juan Diego Flórez (Ory), Aleksandra Kurzak (Adèle) and Josè Maria Lo Monaco (Isolier)
© Brescia/ Amisano | Teatro alla Scala

After the teething problems of Act I, the comic momentum built throughout Act II, simmering only for the gorgeously dusky final trio, before reaching a confused delirium for “J'entends d'ici le bruit des armes” where, in the dead of night, the Count has mistaken the Countess for Isolier, the lights turning on to reveal our bewildered threesome bonking to Rossini's bouncy score. This was capped only by the image of a line of male nuns jumping one by one from Pelly's floating windows to escape the returning crusaders.

Pelly's production is great fun, combining slick gags with the more implicitly ironic and intriguing. This may be an evening of pure fun, but the comedy rarely feels gratuitous, and there is some marvellous singing to boot.

****1