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Rodion Pogossov (Raimbaud), Lawrence Brownlee (Count Ory) and members of the Seattle Opera Chorus.  [Photo by Philip Newton]
09 Aug 2016

Le Comte Ory, Seattle

Farce is probably the most difficult of dramatic comedy sub-genres to put across. A farce got up in the stately robes of opera sets its presenters an even higher bar. Presenting an operatic farce on a notoriously chilly and cavernous auditorium is to risk catastrophe.

Le Comte Ory, Seattle

A review by Roger Downey

Rodion Pogossov (Raimbaud), Lawrence Brownlee (Count Ory) and members of the Seattle Opera Chorus

Photos by Philip Newton


Considering these hazards, Seattle Opera’s Le comte Ory should be considered successful. The piece contains some of Rossini’s freshest inventions, with the delirious final trio standing among his finest achievements. But the piece has suffered from from the beginning from its piecemeal and slapdash dramaturgy, and it has not aged well.

Only the farcical context of the story line rendered its “sexual politics” tolerable in 1828, and today its total reliance on the idea that seduction of the innocent is not just tolerable but uproariously funny means that even the most delicately contrived staging is going to exude the lingering odor of long-used locker rooms.

The staging, a first for Seattle by the Australian director-designer team of Lindy Hume and Dan Potra, does nothing to dispel the smell of stale sweat. The Seattle Opera publicity department’s attempt to fun-up the show by billing it as The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory signifies a broad-brush approach, confirmed in a program interview, where Ms. Hume’s hears in Rossini’s music not only “that he loved good food, good wine, a good time,” but even that “he was flawed, clever—and naughty.” Her dramaturgical touchstones include Monty Python’s Biblical send-up The Life of Brian and something described only as “60s flower-power.” (In the event the latter influence was noticeable only by an outburst of what may have been intended to suggest air-guitar and in the Count’s leopard-print boots.

160802_Ory_pn_ 782.pngHanna Hipp (Isolier) and Sarah Coburn (Countess Adèle).

Mr Potra seems also to have been inspired by Monty Python—in this case by the bulgy colorful animations of Pythonite Terry Gilliam. But what amuses when it moves may lose its charm when it just sits there for an hour. The setting for the first act, which resembles a department-store show window upholstered in lumps and billows of emerald-green shag carpeting, is so vast and vacant that the cast and chorus resemble garden gnomes set about to enliven a miniature golf course.

Even powerful voices struggle for effect in this void. The second act setting goes to the opposite extreme, buttoning up the action in a three-story tin roofed lighthouse (or possibly a water-tower converted into a summer retreat). The compression somewhat helps with the acoustics but paralyses the performers, who are forced to spend much of their time hurrying up and down stairs. The great trio is crammed into an attic space that hardly allows the singers to move, let alone mime love-making.

Ms. Hume seems to believe in the stand-and-deliver approach for singers. I cannot remember any touch of insight into character or situation. In such a bald presentation, the musico-dramatic flaws of the piece stand out clearly. Why does the Tutor have that tiresome song in act one? Because the bass has to have an aria, of course. Likewise the drinking scene in Act II: without it the baritone would have nothing to do. With their total irrelevance to the action, the numbers let the energy leak out of the evening without providing any compensatory musical or comic payoff.

160802_Ory_pn_ 1143.pngSarah Coburn (Countess Adèle) and Lawrence Brownlee (Count Ory).

Abandoned to their own devices and muffled by the staging, the principals are to be commended for what they manage to put across. Worst off was Lawrence Brownlee as the count: dressed in an orange harem number in Act I (before being revealed as Michael Jackson-in-Boots), he seemed in poor voice: his high tenor was secure but rough-sounding throughout his range. The Isolier, Hanna Hipp, came off very well vocally but her acting was the generic operatic page-boy en travesti.

The only real winner was soprano Sarah Coburn, whom I suspect is on the verge of a major career in the Zerbinetta/Konstanze fach. Her warm, brilliant sound punched through the auditory scrim while her brisk behavior and sharp timing created a distinct impression of a woman devoid of airs and nonsense.

The orchestra gave firm support under the direction of Seattle debutant Giocomo Sagripanti, who appears to be a thorough master of Rossinian color and pacing. But musicianship alone can’t pull off a staging—and indeed an opera—with so many inherent obstacles to success.

Roger Downey

Cast and production details:

The Count: Lawrence Brownlee; Countess Adèle: Sarah Coburn; Isolier: Hanna Hipp; Raimbaud: Rodion Pogossov; The tutor: Patrick Carfizzi; Alice: Jennifer Bromagen; Madame Ragonde: Maria Zifchak; a noble: Eric Neuville. Stage director: Lindy Hume; Designer: Dan Potra; Lighting designer: Duane Schuler. Seattle Opera Chorus and members of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, Giacomo Sagripanti (conductor).

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