Opera Alegria keep the home fires burning with Rossini’s Count Ory. Idgie Beau reviews this latest in the Grimeborn 2019 season at the Arcola Theatre:

There is a distinctly jolly atmosphere surrounding Opera Alegria’s Count Ory. The striking propaganda posters reminding us to “Dig for Victory” and “Make Do and Mend” are a comforting signal of the piece’s setting. A table adorned with a union flag provides the intended twee ‘Jam & Jerusalem’ vibe. It may be the Second World War, but this piece exists in that rose-tinted world of ‘doing your bit’, and the eternal summers of the British countryside – far removed from the fight taking place elsewhere.

The tone is clear. Expectations are set.

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Naomi Kilby

The overture begins, and continues, in darkness. When the performers do appear on stage there is a flurry of activity and a much needed burst of energy from the local Home Guard officers and members of the WI. They are concerned for the welfare of Adele (Naomi Kilby), a young aristocratic woman whose brother is missing in action and who will not leave her house. RAF officer Fanshawe (Matthew Duncan) informs the group that a fortuneteller has come to the village to assist with matters of the heart. He ushers in Count Ory (Robert Jenkins) in disguise. Ory hopes that his costume will allow him to trick Adele into loving him, and that plan unfolds as well as can be expected.

Count Ory Grimeborn Arcola Theatre
Alicia Gurney & Noami Kilby

Giachino Rossini’s opera is nearly 200 years old and it is therefore no surprise that its sexual politics are of a bygone era. Both Ory and Nathaniel (Alicia Gurney) are driven by a desire to deceive or trick Adele to get what they want, with no concern for her wishes.

200 years ago, that was romance.

Yet in 2019, and even in the 1940s setting, it feels like an oversight to not adjust this element of the plot in its update. Lindsay Bramley’s translation of the libretto is a witty, a topical reimagining of Rossini’s opera that is reminiscent of classic BBC sitcoms such as ‘Allo ‘Allo! or Dad’s Army. In this way, the exaggerated performances and the style of comedy feels appropriate for the piece.

But it fails in giving Adele more of a voice beyond her beautiful lamenting aria. The fact that she is eventually a consenting participant in the bedroom scene is irrelevant when her interest in it has not been given previously. It would take one look, one line earlier in the performance to indicate she was a willing player, despite what she has to outwardly project for appearances’ sake.

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The issue is not helped by Benjamin Newhouse-Smith‘s clumsy, uneconomical blocking and the performers’ hesitation to commit to behaving sexually towards each other. It makes for an awkward, laborious watch.

This problem is not unique to Count Ory. It is something that many modern operas are failing to notice, despite how easily it can be addressed.

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There are elements of Count Ory that are delightful to watch. The performances from the female singers stand out best, particularly in Act 2 where Adele, Alice (Fae Evelyn) and Venetia (Caroline Carragher) peel carrots. Equally, Jenkins feels appropriately lascivious in his portrayal of Ory.

Ultimately Count Ory is a frolicking romp that will undoubtedly find its audience and be received well. Despite plot issues and some disappointingly anachronistic design choices, its style and tone will feel safe and familiar to many theatregoers, who will enjoy its cheek and nostalgic spirit.