Rossini’s Le Comte Ory is a flirtatious farce in which a naughty young Count drives everyone demented with his relentless erotic enthusiasms: and it glitters, musically and dramatically, with madcap Rossinian flair all the way through. For Grimeborn, Opera Alegria have moved the setting from the Crusades to the Second World War, with Count Ory as a feckless young aristocrat who hasn’t joined up, instead running rings around his exasperated tutor, the redoubtable air-raid warden and the hapless Home Guard as he searches for a way to seduce the delectable Adele. Lindsay Bramley’s brilliant translation-adaptation romps home joyfully with the goods: the wartime update lands the tone somewhere between a (very) cheeky Gilbert & Sullivan and a slightly sweary Carry On film, especially once the lads get the nun costumes out (oh, yes, they do).
But while the tone is refreshingly light and firmly tongue in cheek, the music making is unrepentantly good stuff. We get an hypnotically elegant piano accompaniment arranged and played by Bramley, and a team of superb singers who attack both dramatic and comic moments with lyrical gusto. This strong ensemble boasts several eyecatching talents: Alistair Sutherland’s richly sonorous bass never fails to impress as Hopkins the tutor, a poised and sassy Caroline Carragher excels as a gorgeously bossy Venetia Trumpington-Hewitt, and Naomi Kilby’s luminous soprano (which has developed exciting depth and strength in recent years) is both engaging and affecting as the innocent heroine Adele. The combined comic skill of Ian Massa-Harris, Christopher Killerby and James Schouten make the Home Guard a well-rehearsed delight, while smaller roles are capably presented by Fae Evelyn as a pleasing Alice and Alicia Gurney as Nathaniel, a plucky little farmer who’s caught Adele’s eye.
Jokes abound in the text, in the score and on the stage: this production fizzes with taut energy all the way to its unusual bedroom climax, which here culminates in a rather joyous (and mercifully unsquirmy) threesome, rather than the usual red-faced mistaken gender reveal. Artistic director Benjamin Newhouse-Smith keeps his fine cast on their toes with slick choreography and continuously well-observed dramatic detail, exploring the piece with care; from the priapic possibilities of carrots to the real tension of an air raid during the storm scene (complete with siren), Newhouse-Smith is unfailingly on the case. Vegetables crop up regularly in Christopher Killerby’s design, which is cleverly simple, using wartime posters to set the scene, while Chamberlain’s announcement of war opens the piece with admirable tension, the radio extract movingly played over a steadily darkening stage.
Box office: 020 7503 1646 (until 17 August)
Part of the continuing Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre