by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
THE WICKED ADVENTURES OF COUNT ORY
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
Through August 20
Summertime is a great time for an opera as outlandish and funny as The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory, by the master of the opera buffa tradition, Gioachino Rossini. Everything you want in a frothy summer evening is there - fabulous costumes, clever sets, witty animation, and (on the surface of things) a very funny tale about a very naughty aristocrat whose raison d'être is sex. The music is charming - more in the Gilbert & Sullivan mode of patter songs, melodramatic arias, and rousing choruses than the weighty mode of Wagner or Verdi - wonderfully conducted by the appropriately sexy Giacomo Sagripanti. Seattle Opera makes the evening even more fun by greeting the audience with an entry concert by the 'Bad Habits' - a band of male jazz musicians dressed as nuns. So guess how Count Ory finagles himself into the boudoir of his choice (hint, hint)? It's a jolly opera about bad behavior billed as a Monty Python-esque farce in which bedroom trickery and counter-tricky dominate a goofy and glorious evening of opera.
The first cast stars our own Lawrence Brownlee, a Seattle Opera Young Artist who has taken the international opera community by storm due to his confident, stratospheric tenor voice. He's singing opposite another Seattle Young Artist discovery, Sarah Coburn, playing the Count's love-object, Countess Adèle. I would love to have heard that splendiferous pair again, having heard them both sing here in seasons past, but instead I had another treat in store. On Sunday, August 7 I attended the first matinee performance of the second cast which included no fewer than four highly successful Seattle Opera debuts in all the principal roles: Barry Banks as the rascally Count Ory, Lauren Snouffer as the beautiful Countess-in-distress, Adèle, Stephanie Lauricella in the pretty-boy trouser role of Isolier, and Will Liverman as the Count's sidekick, Raimbaud.
These up-and-coming singers illustrate the virtue of having two casts to choose from: the gold cast consisting of guaranteed star power, and the silver cast consisting of relative newcomers who allow you to say 'I heard them first, folks, when they were young and fresh and headed straight up!' On Sunday, Ms. Snouffer struck the perfect balance between over-the-top drama and elegant, flexible Rossinian singing. I also loved Barry Banks' pouter-pigeon strut in his Elvis outfit of sparkly coat and leopard skin boots - the perfect match for his crystalline upper register. My favorite of all the debutants, however, was Stephanie Lauricella, who not only deployed a deep, rich mezzo as the true lover of Adèle, but had the virtue of being both tall enough and manly enough in her gestures to trick the viewer into seeing a handsome young fellow on the stage.
The most striking debutant of all was Dan Potra, the production and costume designer, who achieved a fascinating balance between the exaggerated realism of the costumes and the cartoon-like artificiality of the sets. And the most striking decision among all those moving parts - the animated clouds, the expanding castle, the swirling moon, the medieval dresses and the Hindu-style hermit - was the use of codpieces on the aristocratic men.
Yes, friends, before there were zippers there were codpieces - modest ones, armored ones, kingly ones, and, in Count Ory, leather ones with brass studs that look like the arms on a Chesterfield sofa. And just like the modern codpieces that can be found at your local leather shop, the style continues to describe power in terms of endowment, à la Henry the Eighth. In the case of Count Ory, however, I thought the point was better made with good acting and singing. The added furniture, for me, was more distracting than funny - possibly because the subtext of Count Ory, when seen in a larger operatic context, is much more complicated than the straight-on comedy Seattle Opera is advertising.
The sexually rapacious aristocrat is a stock opera character found not only in Count Ory but also at the center of Mozart's Don Giovanni, Verdi's Rigoletto, and Rossini's own dramatic opera William Tell, to name a few examples. This character, who often has a sidekick/enabler like Ory's Raimbaud or Don Giovanni's Leporello, rapes as many women as he can for his own pleasure, and cares nothing that their marriages or their lives are ruined. Though Don Giovanni is dragged into hell at the end of his opera, Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, labeled it a 'dramma giocoso' or 'drama with jokes.' For most of its 230 year history it was played for laughs, with the more tragic dimensions foregrounded only in the last four or five decades.
Rigoletto is even more clear in its representation of the rapacious Duke of Mantua, who uses his power and wiles to seduce Gilda, then kidnaps her so that he can rape her in the comfort of his castle. That she sacrifices her life to save him later only makes the story more pathetic and complex.
So Count Ory, who is another iteration of this lustful aristocrat, is funny - but not funny enough to make us forget that his comic attempts on the married Countess Adèle is in the tradition of a truly despicable stock character. Of course, we love despicable characters - they are the heart and soul of conflict, which is the heart and soul of drama. And in this production the Countess is so charmingly melodramatic that you know nothing really bad is going to happen to her. But Count Ory never gets his comeuppance. Instead, when the missing knights come home from the Crusades and the women are safe with their spouses again, Count Ory just puts a basin on his head, Don Quixote-style, and marches back into the castle - clearly incorrigible, clearly intending to redeploy his codpiece, even with Adèle's husband at home.
I haven't got a problem with this - it made the opera more interesting to me, as did the stock character of Isolier, the boy-lover-sung-by-a-woman, who brought the gender-bending dimension of a woman playing a man who is in love with a woman into the story - like Strauss' Octavian, Mozart's Cherubino, and Glück's Orfeo. In this case, however, I was confused by the final bedroom scene in which the Count is bamboozled into making love to Isolier instead of the Countess - a good joke on the bad Count&except Adèle then crawls into the bed on Count Ory's side, as if it were her intention to undo all of her protestations of virtue. This appeared to be funny - and the audience got a big laugh out of it - but like the misstep in last season's Marriage of Figaro, in which the stage direction called for the Contessa to undermine her own virtue by having a flirtation with Cherubino, this action went against the grain of the basic plot, muddying the humor with unforeshadowed irony.
Aidan Lang, now in his sophomore year as the General Manager of Seattle Opera, deserves kudos for bringing so much new talent to Our Fair City, and for making every trip to McCaw Hall a delightful adventure. I loved The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory - it was beautiful, edgy, surprising, and, yes, very funny. Still, I think it would be more accurately entitled 'The Adventures of the Wicked Count Ory' which would acknowledge that this comedy gets it laughs from a convention that can only be funny in a fantastic, imaginary world.
The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory will be performed at McCaw Hall through August 20. For more information and tickets, visit www.seattleopera.org/? or call (888) 428-7036.
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