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.