A phallic tower topped by a little red conical cupola and voluptuous buttock-shaped hills in the background make it clear before a note is heard where Seattle Opera is going with its production of Rossini’s 1828 Count Ory, which opened Saturday. Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python inspired Dan Potra’s set design, full of smart visual play (in another fun detail, supertitles are projected on cloud-shaped flats hung from overhead, puffy cutouts just like your kindergartener would draw them). That tower represents Château Formoutiers, a citadel for women whose menfolk are off fighting the Crusades and which the rakish title nobleman attempts to breach twice, disguised in Act 1 as a hermit and Act 2 as a nun.
It’s not only the plot that makes this feel like two operas in one, but also an uptick in musical invention on Rossini’s part and a notable leap in the level of comic sophistication from director Lindy Hume. Act 2’s highlight is an intricately blocked chorus of drunken knight/nuns—Ory’s entourage, also all in disguise—after raiding the wine cellar, a feat described in a tour de force patter song for Rodion Pogossov as Ory’s sidekick Raimbaud. There’s also Potra’s ingenious tri-level set and a spicy three-in-a-bed ensemble for a woman playing a woman (Sarah Coburn as Countess Adele), a woman playing a man (Hanna Hipp as Isolier, Ory’s page) and a man playing a man disguised as a woman (Lawrence Brownlee as Ory).
Act 1, though, does provide Coburn with a superlative, lavishly ornate showpiece, “En proie à la tristesse.” Another vocal standout in opening night’s cast, as expected, was Brownlee, one of today’s busier Rossini tenors. The composer made particular demands for lightness and flexibility on that voice range, enough unlike later composers’ emphasis on heroic thrust that a “Rossini tenor” is a niche in which one can build a career. Brownlee’s clear, ringing tone, shining top notes (eight high Cs, by my count, in that drinking scene) and strain-free carrying power make him something of a male counterpart to a fondly remembered Seattle Opera favorite, Jane Eaglen. Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, Seattle Center, 389-7676, seattle opera.org. $25 and up. Five more performances through Aug. 20.