Count Ory Review – Pocket Opera and Rossini produce a comic masterpiece

Let’s start with a quiz.  You know how when you buy a book or disk from Amazon they’ll try to entice you to buy more by showing you a few more books and saying, “People who bought your selection also bought . . .  ?”  Well, my quiz is, which one of the following would be most likely to appear to complete the sentence, “People who enjoyed Rossini’s Count Ory also enjoyed” 

A     Verdi’s Aida
B     Puccini’s Butterfly
C     Wagner’s Ring
D     The Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera

IF you go to an opera without knowing the language, and you sit with your eyes closed so you don’t see the supertitles or any of the action, and it’s not Pocket Opera so it’s sung in a foreign language, and Donald Pippin doesn’t give you his “right-on” irreverent analysis of the plot, THEN you might choose B or A, based solely on the music.

Darron Flagg (Count Ory, disguised as a hermit) with members of the Pocket Opera Chorus; upper left shows a silhouette of Donald Pippin at the piano

But IF, like me, you were present at Pocket Opera’s production of Count Ory on Sunday April 15, 2012, and you enjoy all aspects of opera – music, words, plot – THEN you could only answer D.  I mean, the ménage à trois bedroom scene in Act II has much more in common with the Marx Brothers’ crowded stateroom scene than with Cio-Cio San’s tragic finale.

A couple of years ago I was at the MetHD Live’s Comte Ory and enjoyed it very much.  The Met did a good job of making their immense stage seem small enough for Rossini’s intimate opera.  Achieving a small stage was, of course, not a problem for Pocket Opera.  But I was still impressed by how they accomplished so much with so little in convincing me that the action all took place in an impregnable castle.

And how does one compare internationally known veterans such as Juan Diego Florez (Count Ory), Diana Damrau (Countess Adèle), and Joyce DiDonato (Isolier) with gifted young artists such as Darron Flagg, Jennifer Ashworth, and Jennifer Panara in the same roles?

One doesn’t, except to say that seeing an intimate opera live and close enough to see facial expressions – all as part of an enthusiastic audience – made the total experience on Sunday even more satisfying than the impersonal movie theater atmosphere two years ago.  And who knows? A decade from now some of these talented young people may be appearing as international stars on Live in HD.

Jennifer Panara (Isolier) and Darron Flagg (Count Ory, disguised as a hermit)

I want to particularly single out Jennifer Panara.  This is at least the third time I have seen her on a Pocket Opera stage.  Two years ago she sang the trouser role of Goffredo in Handel’s Rinaldo, and last year she had the minor role of Javotte, one of the three young ladies who fawns on Guillot in Massenet’s Manon.  Sunday she really shone in the trouser role of the page, Isolier.  She had an outstanding bel canto mezzo voice, and her costume, makeup, demeanor, and facial expression made her entirely believable as a love-stricken teenage boy.  In fact, there was something in her stance that reminded me of my grandson.

The other two principals were also familiar.  Three years ago, before I started writing opera reviews, I had seen Darron Flagg in Stanislaw Moniuszko’s The Haunted Manor, and it was a pleasure to see him again as the rascally Count.  In a sense, he had three roles, since in the opening scene he is disguised as a Hermit, and later he enters the castle disguised as a nun.  He was quite convincing in all three costumes.

Jennifer Ashworth (Countess Adèle), and Darron Flagg (Count Ory, disguised as a hermit)

I had previously seen and heard Jennifer Ashworth in several lead roles of the Lamplighters’ recent productions:  the Captain’s daughter Josephine in Pinafore, Elsie Maynard in Yeoman of the Guard, and Mabel in the sing-along version of Pirates of Penzance, but I believe her performance as Countess Adèle in Count Ory is her first with Pocket Opera – I hope it won’t be her last.

Jennifer Panara (Isolier) and Jonathan Spencer (the Professor)

Jonathan Spencer, on the other hand, is familiar from both Lamplighters and Pocket Opera.  With the former he has recently sung both Major General Stanley and the Sergeant of Police in Pirates of Penzance, Captain Corcoran in Pinafore, and Sergeant Meryll in Yeoman of the Guard.  With Pocket Opera, his role as the Professor in Count Ory is somewhat similar to his Taddeo in The Italian Girl in Algiers; other recent appearances have been Maxie in The Haunted Manor, and Rambaldo in Puccini’s La Rondine.

Teressa Adams, long-time cellist for the Pocket Philharmonic, and Michael Mendelsohn (Rambaud)

And, of course, I can’t conclude this review without mentioning Michael Mendelsohn, this time as the Count’s trusty henchman Raimbaud.  As always, he did a superb job with his part, both singing and acting.

Jennifer Ashworth (Countess Adèle), Jennifer Panara (Isolier), and Darron Flagg (Count Ory, disguised as a nun)

If you’ve ever seen any performance of Count Ory, you know that the star scene is the ménage à trois bedroom scene which supposedly takes place in total darkness. Director Phil Lowery handled this deftly by leaving the lights on so we the audience could see what shenanigans were going on, meanwhile having the three participants ostentatiously don blindfolds to indicate that they were always fumbling in the dark.

CAST ROLE VOICE TYPE
Darron Flagg Count Ory Tenor
Jennifer Ashworth  Countess Adele Soprano
Yvette Litchfield Alice Soprano
Jennifer Panara Isolier Mezzo Soprano
Diana Kehrig Ragonde Mezzo Soprano
Michael Mendelsohn Raimbaud Baritone
Jonathan Spencer Professor Baritone
Cara Gabrielson Soprano
Molly Mahoney Mezzo
Daniel Norberg Tenor
Alex Tarczynski Baritone
Brendon Hartnett Bass Baritone
Philip Lowery Director
Nicolas Aliaga Production Manager
Julie Chin Assistant Production Manager
Abra Berman Costumes
Daniel Yelen Props

You still have two chances to see this delightful farce at 2 pm on a Sunday:
April 15 at Marines Memorial Theatre
April 22 at the Hillside Club

And while you’re checking your calendar, put down dates to attend some or all of the rest of Pocket Opera’s 35th season:

Teseo  (Handel)
June 3(M)        June 10(H)
Norma (Bellini)
June 24(M)      July 1(M)         July 8(H)
Tales of Hoffman (Offenbach)
July 22(M)       July 29(M)       August 5(H)

All performances 2 pm on a Sunday
M = Marines Memorial Theatre
H = Hillside Club

Photos: Robert Selinsky for Pocket Opera

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on April 19, 2012.

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