Melons. An absolutely cracking pair of melons, right there on a platter: the centrepiece of the banquet that the chaste, all-female inhabitants of the castle of Formoutiers have provided for their surprise guests, a band of nuns. Except these sisters all seem to be singing well below the stave, and judging from the way she adjusts her crotch, Mother Superior has something more than a chastity belt beneath her habit. We all know where this is going. You can’t get your melons out on stage unless, sooner or later, some great hairy bloke in a wimple is going to shove them down his front. It’s the law.
And if that all sounds a bit, shall we say, fruity, you’ll have to trust me that it’s probably the single image that says most about Cal McCrystal’s new staging of Rossini’s Crusader comedy Le Comte Ory. I mean, what else was he going to do with it? Rossini was a jammy swine, and Le Comte Ory — upcycled from an earlier score by a 36-year-old millionaire on the brink of an extremely comfortable retirement — is as jammy as they come. In Act One the sex-crazed Count Ory disguises himself as a hermit to try and get into the castle (and pants) of Countess Adèle. Act Two: same again, but this time he’s a nun.
McCrystal doesn’t so much lean into the silliness as, with a Sid James laugh, and clad only (like much of his cast) in his Y-fronts, trampoline into bed with it. It’s Confessions of a Coloratura Soprano; it’s Carry on Bel Canto — though in fairness, it’d be one of the classier Carry Ons where they had a costume budget, rather than pootling around Slough in a Hillman Imp. McCrystal and his designer Takis hurl pop-culture medievalisms at the stage like cream pies. There’s Frodo Baggins and Legolas! The witch from Disney’s Snow White shuffles about, polishing her apple at the prospect of nookie. A remote-controlled rabbit whizzes past; and a limbless Monty Python knight sings glumly from his stretcher. The sight gags and pratfalls all but trip over each other, as inventive and as energetic as Rossini’s score. Which is delicious, incidentally: Rossini on champagne form, closer in spirit to the Verdi of Falstaff than the set-piece stop-start of his own earlier comedies. The cast goes for it in a big way, and everyone is so comprehensively on top of their game, vocally, that the technical achievement barely registers. Andrea Carroll, as Adèle, simply peals the stuff out, all while rocking vertiginous cleavage and crowning her vocal pyrotechnics by doing the splits right there on the banqueting table. The whole company is equally agile, whether it’s tenor Jack Swanson as Ory or Katie Bray as the amorous pageboy Isolier: artists who make their fioritura seem as natural as (say) simulating rumpy-pumpy with a pillow, as McCrystal ratchets the farcical plot to a pitch of delirious daftness that I’ve not encountered at the opera since, well, since McCrystal directed Iolanthe for ENO.
If there’s a weakness here, it’s the same as in Iolanthe. The very exuberance of the comic invention pulls focus from the music. Which is never, whatever anyone says, the sole point of opera; I’d just like to have had a moment longer to relish the supercharged panache of the Philharmonia under Valentina Peleggi, or to let the voice of Joshua Bloom (singing the role of Ory’s tutor in a bass that’s at least 80 per cent cocoa solids) really melt on the tongue. Interestingly, the one point where McCrystal’s energy flags — a lengthy drinking chorus — was also Rossini’s weakest stretch. There’s only so much that can be done with ten solid minutes of roistering and quaffing, even if you’re a comic genius. And McCrystal, like Rossini, is certainly that.
Comedy carried the day at the Wigmore Hall, too; not a sentence one expects to write, and certainly not when the programme includes Beethoven’s Quartet Op.59 No.2. In honesty, Beethoven wasn’t what drew me to this recital, so much as the chance to hear the Albion Quartet play Haydn’s D major quartet Op.20 No.4. I’d previously heard the Albions — a young British group, led by the violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen — finding quicksilver poetry in a contemporary programme.
But no composer tests a quartet like Haydn, and the Albions met him on his own fantastic, almost improvisatory terms, layering autumnal colours on an earthy bass in the first movement, and flashing like summer lightning across the Hungarian hoe-down finale. Like their contemporaries the Heath, Dudok, Pavel Haas and Castalian quartets, the Albions are pretty much guaranteed to give you virtuosic, fiercely intelligent music-making that stimulates the wits even while it pierces the heart. Seriously, we’re living through a new golden age of string quartet playing, and we don’t talk about it enough.