When asked to describe Le Comte Ory to those unfamiliar with Rossini’s late comic masterpiece, one is perhaps over reliant on the words “threesome” and “cross-dressing nuns”, but this is usually sufficient to get the gist of the opera across to the novice. It’s a riotous, mad piece by a composer at the height of his power and requires loving, free direction and a superb cast. Thank heavens, then, that Garsington’s new production – the last opera of its 2021 season – has both, seasoned with surrealist sparkle and an infectious joie de vivre. 

Garsington Opera Chorus kick the habit...
© Alice Pennefather

Director Cal McCrystal’s approach, in partnership with designer takis, to the opera seems to be very simple: make sure everyone on stage and in the audience has fun. To this end they retain the setting of medieval France, with a delicate gold and blue castle frame (with added balcony – on which to drink!) and camp up the costumes for good measure. Ludicrous elements are hurled into the mix for the sake of sheer hilarity, chief among which is a Snow White-esque old crone cradling a large apple who lurks on the side until it’s time to make a move on Isolier and get onto the dance floor. I believe the modern term is “working it”, of which she did plenty. A rabbit on wheels whizzes on and off stage. Ory’s initial disguise is a set of Groucho glasses and he deals with Countess Adèle’s illness by way of hypnosis. Every aspect of the staging is designed to provoke or facilitate humour; the cast reciprocate by throwing themselves utterly into the production. Choreography is tight considering the amount that the chorus et al are given to do and indeed at times it’s all a little too busy, particularly in ensemble scenes where the eyes tire from bouncing from singer to singer and inevitably nuggets of humour are missed. 

Andrea Carroll (Countess Adèle) and Patricia Bardon (Ragonde)
© Craig Fuller

It’s always pleasing to see a strong cast across the board where each individually could be considered a stage-stealer and all of whom seemed truly invested in the production. First among equals was Andrea Carroll singing Adèle, delivering outstanding bel canto singing. There’s something of the sundae to Carroll’s voice: rich and syrupy at the bottom with a decadent topping of light whipped cream. Registers were completely integrated and coloratura on point. Jack Swanson sang Ory with elegant humour; as with Carroll, Swanson did not hold back on the top notes and delivered some pinging highs while enthusiastically stripped down to his unmentionables. A little more sculpting on the line will no doubt come with time. With his confident stage presence and voice so well suited to this repertoire, Swanson is one to watch.

Jack Swanson (Ory) and Andrea Carroll (Adèle)
© Julian Guidera

Katie Bray brought her usual energy to the trouser role of Isolier, showing a graceful line and delicate articulation. Joshua Bloom (opening the evening with a pre-performance riff with Jacques Imbrailo) is a commanding figure and brought his plummy bass to the Tutor with innate comic sensibility. As Raimbaud, Imbrailo delivered one of the musical moments of the evening when he discovered the wine, showing an elegance in singing at odds with his religious drag. Patricia Bardon was an expressive Ragonde. 

Jacques Imbrailo (Raimbaud)
© Craig Fuller

Valentina Peleggi in the pit drew a bombastic performance from the Philharmonia, but the balance was varied and, in particular during the overture, the brass eliminated virtually every other section. The Garsington Opera Chorus gave a rousing performance, be it in courtly dress or in frock. Highbrow humour this is not, but for an evening of slapstick comedy and quality bel canto singing, this production delivers.