Count Ory – Rossini’s comic masterpiece

Edmonton audiences may know Rossini as the genius behind blockbuster comic operas like The Barber of Seville and Cinderella, but his final comedy Count Ory (or Le comte Ory in French) is only now gaining popularity at opera houses across the world.

“For the life of me, I don’t understand why Le comte Ory isn’t the most produced of all Rossini operas,” says Brian Deedrick, director of this Western Canadian premiere. “It’s one grand and glorious cartoon! From the moment the curtain goes up, you sort of know that everything is going to turn out just fine in the end, which allows you to sit back and let the music, the story, the characters, and the silliness wash over you.”  

ROSSINI’S ROAD TO PARIS 

By the time 31-year-old Rossini arrived in Paris, all of Europe was already familiar with his work. The runaway success of Barber, which he composed at the age of 26, and several other productions had established him as the golden boy of opera.

Within a few short years of performing in Italy, Rossini was ready to move on to different audiences and enjoyed the royal treatment he received in Vienna, Paris, and London. He even had a meeting with the elusive Beethoven in Vienna, during which the legendary composer famously declared that Rossini’s talent was not suited for serious opera, and that he should do more operas like Barber.

Rossini’s personality and charisma were in high demand in England, perhaps even more so than his music. He made the most of his British residency, building up an enviable fortune by charging for house visits to aristocrats.

The French had been eyeing Rossini for some time, but seeing his popularity in England, they acted quickly and offered him a very lucrative contract. By 1824, Rossini took up residence in Paris, where he would eventually retire.

COMPOSING IN FRENCH 

As part of his contract, Rossini had to compose an opera to celebrate the coronation of Charles X in 1825. He wrote his final Italian opera for the occasion, Il viaggio a Reims or The Journey to Reims, which later became the musical basis for Count Ory. This ambitious piece featured fourteen soloists and a delightfully farcical plot about a band of quirky characters on their way to the coronation of Charles X. Despite the opera’s huge success, Rossini only allowed four performances before pulling it from the stage.

Rossini had a lot to learn from the French operatic tradition, including their desire for a strong, poetic libretto and using the chorus to great effect. The language itself was very differently sung, which meant the signature rapid vocal gymnastics you would see in Barber had to evolve to suit French declamation.

Rossini spent a few years trying to absorb and adjust to the style of music in Paris, reworking two of his previous operas into French before he embarked on his first full-length French opera. It seems he took Beethoven’s advice to heart and stuck to what he knew best — comedy. He borrowed almost half of the score from Il viaggio a Reims and brought on Eugène Scribe, a celebrated French playwright, to provide the libretto. Count Ory premiered in 1828 and was instantly acclaimed as a masterpiece.

A RAUCOUS COMEDY

The plot of Count Ory is based on a medieval ballad, in which a group of knights break into a convent. This was turned into a one-act play by Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson about the shameless, skirt-chasing Count Ory and his knights who try to enter a convent but are unsuccessful in doing so. Under Rossini’s direction, the story evolved to include a love triangle, several mistaken identities, naughty nuns, and an unforgettable musical threesome.

A major highlight of the opera is the Act One finale, right after Count Ory has been exposed as a liar in front of the entire crowd. Originally written for fourteen voices in Il viaggio a Reims, Rossini reduced it down to seven voices that initially sing a cappella, rising into a rapidly bubbling orchestral and vocal storm. 

The show stopper in Count Ory, however, is the Act Two trio between the Count, his page Isolier, and Countess Adele. As Count Ory (dressed as a nun) enters Adele’s bedroom at night, expecting to get lucky, he is foiled by his own page (and Adele’s lover) Isolier. Words are really not enough to describe the hilarity and musical excellence of this scene, but it truly captures the essence of Rossini’s genius.

Interview with Hansel & Gretel

Mezzo soprano Andrea Hill and soprano Lida Szkwarek will be playing the dynamic brother-sister duo in Hansel & Gretel. They recently sat down to chat about the music in this opera and their impressions of Edmonton Opera’s new production. 

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Andrea: What makes the music in this opera so compelling? 

Lida: The way Humperdinck has composed music for each character really gives you a feel for their personalities. For example, the children’s music is so pure and shows their sporadic ideas, whereas the parents’ music is more stable. Another compelling part happens in the woods, where Humperdinck builds so much tension and drama when the kids are lost, and then it unexpectedly bursts into this beautiful aria by the Sandman. I like those moments of contrast.  

Andrea: It goes back and forth, doesn’t it? Even with the Witch, her music doesn’t start out evil. It starts out lulling before it gets menacing, and with the Sandman you think it starts off evil but then it doesn’t go there at all. There’s a mix of light and dark in this opera, which keeps you on your toes. 

Lida: Is there a particular scene or piece of music you are excited to perform?  

Andrea: I think we both like the scene in the woods. From the moment we step in, through to the Dew Fairy and gingerbread house, there are so many colours in that music along the journey. The piece I like to sing in that is our little duet. It’s quite short, like most pieces in this opera, but it’s great.  

Andrea: What are you looking forward to in this new production of Hansel & Gretel?  

Lida: In this Hansel and Gretel, which director Rob Herriot has created along with the scenery designer Camellia Koo, there’s a bit of darkness – it won’t always be the folksy thing people expect. It’ll be beautiful in some moments, scary in others. 

Andrea: And it’s more authentic to the tale. This is a story where Hansel and Gretel are starving. The costumes (designed by Deanna Finnman) start in grayscale to show how the colour has seeped out along with our happiness but when we go into the forest, everything comes alive and becomes colourful. Our imaginations come to life and go into these bright colours. Allowing it to be dark and to show unhappy colours helps highlight the freedom, happiness, and release that comes at the end. 

Lida: I also love how the other characters (Sandman, Dew Fairy, Witch) have been built up to look bigger than us. It’ll give the illusion that they are huge and will help us feel smaller and more vulnerable on stage. 

Andrea: I’m also looking forward to my debut in Edmonton. This has been a very fun production to work on! 

Lida: I’m really excited to be back, the last time I was here singing Micaëla in Carmen. Everyone in Edmonton is so warm and welcoming!  

 

HELP HANSEL & GRETEL FILL THEIR BASKET!

A major theme in Hansel & Gretel is hunger and the extent to which it can affect family relationships. Throughout the opera, starvation is an imminent reality for the children, and we see the amount of stress it causes the parents. The Mother’s shame and anger at being unable to provide for her children causes her to lash out and tell them to forage for food in the forest. The Father, on the other hand, often comes home drunk.

Though Hansel & Gretel is a fairy tale, their family’s story is a reality for many people in our own community. After changes were announced to the Canada Food Guide just a few weeks ago, it has become increasingly evident that many Canadians cannot afford to meet our national nutrition requirements. A recent CBC piece cites studies asserting around 1 in 6 Canadian children is affected by household food insecurity and over 90% of students grade 6 to 12 are not eating their daily recommended servings. Poor childhood nutrition takes a huge toll on physical development, mental health, and can cause a number of chronic illnesses as kids get older. 

Local food banks across the country work tirelessly to provide wholesome meals to those in need. Edmonton’s Food Bank, the first of its kind in Canada, has been operating since 1981 and distributes food hampers to over 22,000 people each month (approximately 40% of whom are children). They also provide nearly 500,000 meals and snacks monthly through affiliated agencies, including 59 schools in the Edmonton area. Supervised school lunch programs are an effective way to ensure that kids receive proper nutrition; sometimes their only meal of the day will be at school.

“Knowing the opera’s emphasis on hunger and poverty, we decided to collaborate with Edmonton’s Food Bank and help make a difference for the children in our community,” says Tim Yakimec, General Director of Edmonton Opera. “We hope one day Hansel & Gretel can be just what it is — a fairy tale.” 

We will be accepting contributions of non-perishable items towards Edmonton’s Food Bank at every performance of Hansel & Gretel and at our Box Office (15230 128 Ave) until February 8. Most needed items for children include healthy school snacks (fruit cups, granola bars, juice boxes, peanut butter), canned fruits & vegetables, and baby formula. You may also make a donation directly to the Food Bank.

 
 

Hansel & Gretel — NOT JUST A CHILDREN’S OPERA

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Is it based on a popular kids’ fairy tale? Yes. Does it have cutesy rhymes and folk melodies? Sure. But Hansel & Gretel is definitely not just for the little ones. In fact, if you bring kids to experience this opera, they will be at a pretty high level of music appreciation by the end of it. They’ll be ready for The Ring Cycle next!

The maturity and complex musical themes in Hansel & Gretel are no surprise considering composer Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) trained under Richard Wagner, who created masterpieces such as Parsifal, Tristan und Isolde, The Flying Dutchman, and of course, The Ring Cycle. Wagner’s knack for rich, soaring orchestrations that tell larger-than-life stories of heroes, epic journeys, and ill-fated lovers definitely rubbed off on Humperdinck’s style.

There are several instances throughout the overture, interludes, and forest scenes in Hansel & Gretel where Humperdinck taps into his Wagnerian vocabulary to express the darkness and weight of this story. A particularly chilling moment happens when the children realize they are lost in the forest; as they say “Who’s there?”, their voices echo through the trees, followed by a tense cuckoo sound that leads to complete silence. The music resumes menacingly and the children begin to freak out, ending in a whirlwind of vocal and orchestral panic just before the Sandman arrives to calm them down.

What makes Hansel & Gretel more than just ‘Wagner-lite’ however is Humperdinck’s love of folk melodies, which relate more closely to his fascination with the intimate and approachable world of fairy tales. The childlike simplicity of ‘tra la las’ helps make the characters more human and the music more memorable. 

Through Hansel & Gretel, Humperdinck tells a story that will appeal to the child in all of us, but will also engage young people in a very mature musical sensibility. He ensures that great opera can feel equally at home while you tuck your kids into bed as it does on a large stage.

 

Alberta Culture Days 2018

As a Feature Celebration Site for Alberta Culture Days 2018, Edmonton Opera offered three days of free, family-friendly arts events at locations across the city from September 28-30. Albertans were welcomed to discover the diversity of arts and culture in our province by attending these exciting events!

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Our action-packed weekend began with an Open House at the Edmonton Opera Centre, where visitors were able to get a first look at the set of La Traviata in the rehearsal hall. They also received tours of our 22,000 square foot facility and interacted with production staff, who were in the midst of building our upcoming productions. Later that evening, we threw a grand party on the Traviata set with over 200 guests in attendance. This ‘Evening In Paris’ included performances by Whitney Sloan and Adam Fisher, Opera Centre tours, and even an Opera Paint Nite for participants to learn scenic painting techniques! 

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This year’s signature event at Alberta Culture Days was titled ‘Songs of Hope’, held at Enterprise Square in collaboration with University of Alberta’s Faculty of Extension and Metis Life Skills Journeys. Songs of Hope featured a fiddle group performance by Prince Charles School, Cree songs by Darlene Auger, traditional Maori singing by Nga Ihi O Nehua, and opera arias by Adam Fisher and Leanne Regehr. Audiences came together in the spirit of hope and reconciliation on Orange Shirt Day, observed annually to raise awareness about the impact of Indian Residential Schools on the Indigenous Peoples of Canada.

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Alberta Culture Days weekend continued with a celebration of Franco-Albertan culture during ‘Spectacle de variété francophone’ at La Cité Francophone. This multidisciplinary arts showcase was presented in partnership with L’UniThéâtre, Alberta’s only professional francophone theatre. We also welcomed families to a free screening of Hansel & Gretel (1987) at Metro Cinema, followed by a multicultural arts show at Southgate Centre that included performances of opera, Indian classical dance, and K-pop. 

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At Edmonton Opera, part of our vision is to engage communities in meaningful and exciting new ways, which goes beyond performances on the Jubilee stage. By offering such free events in easily accessible community spaces throughout the year, we hope to give more Edmontonians opportunities to gain an appreciation of the arts.  

All Alberta Culture Days activities were made possible with a grant from Alberta’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism.

Special thanks to our community partners:

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Building the Traviata set

Building the Traviata set

Our 2018/19 season opener La Traviata is part of a remarkable moment in Canadian opera history. For the first time, five of Canada’s leading opera companies — Edmonton Opera, Manitoba Opera, Pacific Opera Victoria, Vancouver Opera, and Opéra de Montréal — have come together to create a spectacular new production of Verdi’s masterpiece.

Spotlight on Laquita Mitchell

Spotlight on Laquita Mitchell

When Laquita Mitchell was just fourteen years old, a bright-eyed young high school student in Manhattan, she had the opportunity to experience opera for the first time. Far from the usual ‘starter operas’ like Madama Butterfly or Carmen, Laquita went to see part two of Wagner’s Ring Cycle epic — Die Walküre at the Metropolitan Opera starring the great soprano Jessye Norman, who had also bought Laquita’s ticket to the performance.