After Lyric Opera of Chicago’s opening last week of its first-ever production of the 1886 five-act version of “Don Carlos,” with its intense dose of forced marriage, armed rebellion and religious oppression, the company unveiled a perfect, light-hearted contrast Sunday afternoon.
There is nothing heavy-duty about Gioachino Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory (Count Ory),” which runs for four more performances through Nov. 26. It’s a frothy, laugh-filled romp by one of opera’s greatest comedians.
The next to last of Rossini’s 39 operas, the piece has long been overshadowed by the composer’s better-known masterpieces like “The Barber of Seville,” probably because the story is a bit thin in comparison.
When: 2 p.m. Nov. 16; 7 p.m. Nov. 18 and 22; and 7:30 p.m. Nov. 26
Where: Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker
But this 1828 work, Rossini’s first in French, has plenty to recommend it, and it is making a much-belated and deserved jump into prominence. New York’s Metropolitan Opera presented its debut of the opera in 2011, and 11 years later, Lyric has followed suit, reviving that production.
The premise of “Le Comte” is simple, and, of course, wonderfully silly. A group of soldiers has gone off to Middle East to fight in the Crusades, leaving Countess Adèle and the rest their wives and sisters behind, and the philandering Count Ory and his pals see it as an ideal chance to weasel their way into Formoutiers Castle and make merry with them.
To pull off his ultimately partially successful scheme, Ory disguises himself first as a kind of hermit or holy man and later as a nun on pilgrimage, and it all leads to a delightful series of farcical misidentifications and comedic pratfalls.
The opera climaxes (perhaps a bad choice of words) in Act 2 with what must be one of the only three-way trysts in all opera. The hilarious encounter in Adèle’s bed is both innocent —she and her two suitors are fully dressed — but also surprisingly naughty at the same time.
Probably because some of the attitudes and interactions among the men and women in this story don’t exactly fit today’s ever-more exacting norms, director Bartlett Sher (Kathleen Smith Belcher served as revival director here) has devised an ingenious staging concept.
In what becomes an opera within an opera, Sher has moved the action into a fully realized wooden theater (designed by Michael Yeargan) probably from the 17th or 18th centuries, complete with footlights and large overhead wheels and pulleys of the period to fly in out the mostly spartan vintage sets. It is apparently a dress rehearsal because a harried director can be seen off to the side frantically gesturing and mouthing commands.
By shifting the staging out of the present and back to this theater of an earlier time, Sher in essence gives the audience permission to relax and guffaw at the saucy gags, and he is thus allowed to take full advantage of the opera’s comedic potential.
Lyric has assembled a fine cast, starting with tenor Lawrence Brownlee, a company regular, in the title role. As expected of this noted singer with extensive Rossini experience, he capitalizes on the comedic potential of this whacky character and delivers a handsome, technically secure vocal performance.
Also deserving note is mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Decker, who is convincing in the trouser or cross-gender role of Isolier, Ory’s page who is a rival — and legitimate — suitor to Adèle. She shows herself to be a first-rate physical comedian with a flexible, expressive voice.
It was announced from the stage that baritone Ian Rucker, who is a first-year participant in the Ryan Opera Center, Lyric’s pre-professional training ensemble, would step into the role of Raimbaud, a friend of Ory, taking the place of Joshua Hopkins who was ill.
Rimbaud’s big aria comes in Act 2, after Ory and his other pals have infiltrated Adèle’s castle, and he made the most of the it, delivering a spirited, self-assured performance that suggests a bright professional future for him.
But the unquestioned star of the show is soprano Kathryn Lewek, who revels in the preening role of a prima-donna opera singer portraying the spoiled Adèle in this opera within an opera, drawing cheers all afternoon long. With a lovely, high-flying soprano voice, she handles the coloratura demands with thrilling ease.
Lyric’s music director, Enrique Mazzola, turns in a strong performance in the pit. In addition to mining the many musical riches of Rossini’s score, he shows that he knows a thing or two about comedic timing, especially with his intricate coordination of voice, orchestra and stage action during the Act 2 tryst for maximum laughs.