Carry on crusading

Edward Seckerson is not amused by Glyndebourne's village panto take on Rossini's medieval romp `Le Comte Ory'
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The rural manor of Formoutiers, somewhere in France, sometime during the Crusades. The mise-en-scene (Ezio Toffolutti) is cheekily idyllic, a pop-up picture book of well-manicured trees and plump hillocks. Cows and sheep glide lazily by. Colourful locals gather by the chateau. Among them, a couple of Glyndebourne punters who appear to have strayed into the action in search of the perfect picnic site. Harassed ushers spirit them away. This is promising, you think. A touch of lunacy, irreverence even, and so soon in the proceedings. Rossini has met his match, you think. Director Jerome Savary is living up to his reputation, you think.

Think again. There aren't too many more laughs where that one came from. Savary's robust village-panto manner (as in Carry on Crusading) is good for a few, of course. Silliness is a Frenchman's birthright and no one would begrudge him that. To a point. I've no doubt that Rossini would have warmed to his depiction of Count Ory's fraudulent holy man as a walking, talking, Byzantine icon replete with illuminated (as in moving light-show) halo. Literally a flash of wit in an otherwise witless first act. So far, so bad. The trouble is, Savary's production fast becomes that which it seeks to parody. Silliness is always one step ahead of cynicism. Irony (Rossini's ace) is nowhere to be found. At best this show's a saucy medieval postcard. If you laugh, you laugh in spite of yourself.

Of course, the piece is no longer stageable as Rossini must have envisaged. There's no scandal, no satirical bite any more in Ory and his debauched followers dragging up as nuns to gain access to the ladies' sanctuary. Not after The Sound of Music and Benny Hill. Still, Savary's nothing if not a clown at heart (it was he, after all, who founded Le Grand Magic Circus) and Act 2 is literally awash with all manner of Nunsense (remember that show?). The Charley's Aunt factor is high (don't you just love the bearded Mother Superior?), the mugging and innuendo know no bounds, and I lost count of how many times some nun or other noisily dropped her boobs. As for that tired old panto gag where you never quite turn quickly enough to catch whosoever is at it, well, Savary certainly tried our patience with that one (it's sort of funny the first time, Jerome, but ... ). And yet this same man can serve up an inspired tableau which is something akin to a Rabelaisian "Last Supper" (nuns at table the entire width of the stage) and further compound the sacrilege by turning that same table into a moving conveyor belt for the entire contents of the wine cellar. In the blink of an eye, water is turned to vin ordinaire is turned to grand cru.

We needed more of that, please. Much more. More, too, of that inimitable singing style which can turn Rossinian roulades into capricious transports of enticement and delight. Annick Massis (Countess Adele) had it in abundance. Her entrance aria "En proie a la tristesse" put a shine on the note-spinning at last, a fine example of coloratura used to express more than mere words can ever convey. She sings of an inexplicable malaise, but the ornamentations are breathless with desire. In a stunning conclusion to the aria, she sits on her climactic note in altissimo until she and it all but faint away for lack of oxygen. Such singing is not matched by those around her. The elegant Diana Montague's boyish mezzo makes for a credible Isolier, but the voice is still short at the top. So, too, the uningratiatingly dry-voiced Marc Lahu, replacing Tracey Welborn (on medical advice) in the title role. The Rossini tenor is indeed a special thoroughbreed. Let's just say that Lahu wore both tessitura and coloratura like they were an encumbrance, not a liberation.

But let's hear it for the Glyndebourne Chorus, a major player - or rather, a cogent set of players - in this enterprise. And if the staging was only fitfully in step with Rossini's wit and irony, the conducting of Andrew Davis always was. From the very start of the Prelude, he had the London Philharmonic fine-pointing, anticipating, every phrase like a raised eyebrow. He teased out the little confidences and asides, roistered through the crusading marches. And when it came to the infamous bedroom denouement (the countess, the page, the lecher / nun - quite some threesome), he more than ever had us appreciating this most miraculous of Rossinian deceptions. For out of bedroom farce is born the most exquisite harmony

In rep at Glyndebourne (01273 813813) to 23 August; broadcast live on Channel 4, Saturday 9 Aug; and in concert at the Proms and live in BBC Radio 3, Monday 25 Aug