Carry On Rossini, Le Comte Ory, Garsington Opera, Garsington

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The Independent Culture

Rossini's 38th opera, Le Comte Ory, pieced together for 1820s Paris, and his last comic effort before he signed off with Guillaume Tell, is a glorious mélange of folly and foible. A ridiculous ripping yarn set in the then fashionable Crusades era, it has something of Boccaccio about it, or the flavour of a medieval conte.

Rossini's 38th opera, Le Comte Ory, pieced together for 1820s Paris, and his last comic effort before he signed off with Guillaume Tell, is a glorious mélange of folly and foible. A ridiculous ripping yarn set in the then fashionable Crusades era, it has something of Boccaccio about it, or the flavour of a medieval conte.

Act II, in which the randy count and his male chorus-line tog up as nuns to gain wily access to a castle replete with wenches, displays, as my erudite companion observed, all the seriousness of a Carry On film.

Much of Le Comte Ory - including a deliciously over-the-top drinking song that alternates with a bizarre pilgrims' prayer - sounds like a dress rehearsal for the opéras bouffes of Offenbach and Chabrier. Rossini's umpteen high points include some devilishly high writing for the mischievous aristo disguised as a mumbo-jumbo preacher who sets the village alight; a blaze of coloratura for the heroine; and the famous trio ("A la faveur de cette nuit obscure") in which the besotted Ory is tricked in the dark into wooing his own page. Pure Frankie Howerd.

It is in that trio, one of the most sensual extended ensembles ever composed for the French stage - Berlioz adored it - that Rupert Goold's wonderfully witty, cheeky and detailed Garsington staging came fabulously alive. The artistic director of Northampton's Royal Theatre, Goold is one of our most daring young directorial talents, and a great find for Garsington.

To help you to visualise it: an array of four-poster beds, with hot-blooded young crusaders' wives hunched like Lysistrata and her coterie in reluctant self-imposed purdah, sex oozing from every pore, watched over by a mother- superior figure (Anne-Marie Owens in rich voice, conjuring up memories of Berlioz's Cassandre). And into this cage aux folles pours a bevy of blokes like pantomime dames in drag, out on the razzle. Lowest- denominator comedy, but a sure-fire hoot.

Garsington's male and female choruses - Rossini works in loads of them - were simply stupendous: punchy, witty and impeccably rehearsed. They flowed, rather as the absinthe-and-grenadine cocktails did. Superb, too, were the orchestral strings - warm, full-blooded, with strength in depth yet, thanks to adroit controlling from seasoned Rossinian David Parry, not once overbearing. Even lesser roles were finely cast: the lively Croatian Miljenko Turk dished up a bumper second- half aria ("Dans ce lieu solitaire") as the count's cheery chum Raimbaud; the Australian bass Dean Robinson brought fine resonance to the tutor assigned to counter - and later to abet - Ory's rascally ruses.

Ory himself needs an astonishingly fluent singer, and Garsington found its tiptop answer in the South African Colin Lee, a sparklingly entertaining, pliant, charismatic tenor whose top range deserves to have more mainstream companies scampering after him.

True, the deliciously unbelievable frolics couldn't quite sustain an outdoor opening half that was little aided by Laura Hopkins' sprawling design (Act II's set was a joy). The girls all looked pretty in their 1940s party gear, but the start shambled by comparison with the nattily managed convent capers.

What perked things up was the terrific women: first Owens, like a full-bodied Bordeaux; then the Colombian Juanita Lascarro, whose intermittently thrilling coloratura took wing as Adèle, from her fretful opening aria, "En proie à la tristesse"; and above all, as the enamoured page who gets the gal, the dizzyingly beautiful mezzo Victoria Simmonds, whose every note suffused the Oxfordshire evening air with a scrumptious warm glow.

The naughty trio, scampishly played out in Bruno Poet's bathing fluorescent light, was like the icing on a sinfully succulent cake. No kidding, we nearly died of laughter.

To 9 July ( www.garsingtonopera.org; 01865 361636)

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