LE COMTE ORY – Gioachino Rossini

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When Gioachino Rossini first stepped foot in Paris in Novem­ber 1823, he was 31 years old, and widely hailed as the great­est oper­atic com­poser alive. Nei­ther he, nor any­one else, seems to have sus­pected that his most recent opera, Semi­ramide, would be the last he ever wrote for an Ital­ian the­ater. Rossini was so pop­u­lar that the French gov­ern­ment offered him an offi­cial post, but he and his wife, the cel­e­brated singer Isabella Col­bran, were on their way to Lon­don, so noth­ing came of it at the time.

Isabella Col­bran

The seven months they spent in Eng­land had rather mixed results. Rossini never com­pleted the opera he owed the King’s The­atre (its score has van­ished) and Colbran’s voice was a mere shadow of what it had been. (Her unsuc­cess­ful Lon­don appear­ances spelled the end of her career.) But the British aris­toc­racy could not get enough of Rossini and he amassed — lit­er­ally — a for­tune for vis­it­ing their homes and pro­vid­ing a bit of musi­cal enter­tain­ment.  Even King George IV delighted in singing duets with the com­poser. The French gov­ern­ment, fear­ful the British would make Rossini an offer he couldn’t refuse, instead offered him another con­tact of their own. He signed it in the French embassy in Lon­don on Feb­ru­ary 27, 1824. As it turned out, there were sev­eral dif­fer­ent con­tracts between Rossini and the French gov­ern­ment over the next few years, but ini­tially he was in charge of the Théâtre Ital­ien and obliged to com­pose operas of his own, includ­ing works for the Opéra.

Rossini absolutely daz­zled Paris, per­son­ally as well as artis­ti­cally. (“His con­ver­sa­tion is in fact equal to his music,” said Balzac.) He attracted some of the great­est singers of the time to the Théâtre Ital­ien and coach­ing them him­self. In addi­tion to his own operas, he pre­sented works by other con­tem­po­rary com­posers, includ­ing the Parisian pre­mière of Meyerbeer’s Il cro­ci­ato in Egitto that made Meyer­beer inter­na­tion­ally famous. All the while, Rossini was busy absorb­ing the niceties of French musi­cal style and the nuances of the lan­guage that he would need to com­pose a suc­cess­ful French opera.

There were sev­eral key dif­fer­ence between the Ital­ian opera at which Rossini was so suc­cess­ful and the French vari­ety — all of which Rossini mas­ter­fully exploited in Le Comte Ory, his first orig­i­nal French opera. First and fore­most, of course, was the lan­guage itself. French did not lend itself to the amount of lav­ish vocal orna­men­ta­tion that was such an impor­tant part of Rossini’s Ital­ian operas. The sound of the lan­guage and its prosody would affect the music, as would French pride in their lit­er­ary tra­di­tion which included opera libretti. The musi­cal forms used in French opera were larger and more elab­o­rate, and the cho­rus was often a more inte­gral part of the score. In addi­tion, the orches­tras at his dis­posal in Paris were bet­ter than any with which he had worked. This must have espe­cially pleased the man detrac­tors had labeled “Il Tedesco” (the Ger­man) for the delight he took in vary­ing instru­men­tal col­ors in his orches­tra as a chef varies the sauces for his pasta.

Charles X of France

Before Rossini could start on a French opera of his own, he was obliged to pro­vide a work to cel­e­brate the coro­na­tion of Charles X at Rheims Cathe­dral. The result was Rossini’s last Ital­ian opera, Il viag­gio a Reims. Despite its enor­mous suc­cess, Rossini with­drew the score after four per­for­mances, real­iz­ing it was an occa­sional piece. With the excep­tion of the six num­bers he later incor­po­rated into Le Comte Ory, the music was thought to be lost until bits and pieces of the score began show­ing up in libraries all around Europe at the end of the 1970s. It was reassem­bled and restored to the world at the Rossini Fes­ti­val in Pesaro in 1984.

Rossini eased into com­pos­ing a French opera by ini­tially rewrit­ing two of his Ital­ian operas for Paris. The first of these was Maometto II that he rewrote as Le Siège de Corinth. The new opera’s plot — the city of Corinth besieged by the Turks in the 1400s – astutely took advan­tage of the pre­vail­ing sen­ti­ment in France that favored the Greeks in their strug­gle for inde­pen­dence from the Turks. Parisians cheered the new opera’s pre­mière in October1826. They were even more excited by Rossini’s next opera, five months later: Moïse et Pharaon, an expanded, rewrit­ten ver­sion of Mosè in Egitto.

After giv­ing the French one new Ital­ian opera, and two rewrit­ten into French pieces, Rossini knew it was time to write an orig­i­nal work in French. But he still hes­i­tated to tackle a grand opera, so he turned to the field in which he was the undis­puted grand mas­ter: com­edy. When Le Comte Ory pre­miered on August 20, 1828, no one real­ized it would be Rossini’s last comic opera.

Eugene Scribe

For the libretto he turned to Eugèné Scribe, the man who was fast on his way to becom­ing the most suc­cess­ful, and pro­lific, French play­wright of his gen­er­a­tion. (After his death his col­lected works totaled 76 vol­umes.) Scribe’s detrac­tors pointed out he almost always worked with col­lab­o­ra­tors, but no one could deny he was the mas­ter of the well-made play; short on char­ac­ter­i­za­tion, per­haps, but filled with clever plot twists. About a decade ear­lier, Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson had writ­ten a one-act vaude­ville on the comic tale from the time of the Cru­sades about the licen­tious Comte Ory who, with his band of knights, laid siege to a con­vent. Their most imme­di­ate source for the story was a medieval bal­lad pub­lished around 1785 by Pierre-Antoine de la Place that ends, in what might be described as Chaucer­ian fash­ion, with the lines:

Nine months later, towards the month of Jan­u­ary,
His­tory adds a very sin­gu­lar fact,
That each nun had had a small knight.

For his one-act play Scribe chose a dif­fer­ent end­ing, in which Comte Ory’s designs on the clois­tered nuns are foiled by the return of their pro­tect­ing Cru­saders. The very funny, slightly naughty and def­i­nitely sub­ver­sive story was per­fect for Rossini, and he asked Scribe to turn his vaude­ville into an opera libretto expand­ing it to two acts with the orig­i­nal play serv­ing as Act II. Scribe (again col­lab­o­rat­ing with Delestre-Poirson) had a more dif­fi­cult task than just pro­vid­ing an opera libretto, since the words, in some cases, would have to fit music Rossini had already writ­ten — those six num­bers he was reusing from Il viag­gio a Reims. They came up with an open­ing act in which Comte Ory is mas­querad­ing as a holy her­mit, and insin­u­at­ing him­self with the vil­lage girls by promis­ing what­ever they want, while try­ing to find a way to woe the Comtesse de Formoutiers.

From the music Rossini wrote for the tenor, it’s clear he adored the ras­cally Comte Ory, and the com­poser seems to have taken spe­cial pains to define the count’s char­ac­ter through his vocal line. For instance, the Count is given to imp­ishly pop­ping out high Cs in the mid­dle of cho­ruses. His phrases are always ele­gant (he is, after all, an aris­to­crat), even if he is schem­ing and being delib­er­ately eva­sive. But per­haps it is in the great final trio — one of the high­lights of the opera — where Rossini sur­passes even him­self. The Comte (dis­guised as “Sis­ter Colette”) thinks he is mak­ing love to the Comtesse while, in fact he is mak­ing love to his Page, a sit­u­a­tion even more com­i­cal since the role of the male Page is sung by a woman. Rossini’s music for the Comte tells us that, despite the tit­il­la­tion and humor of the sit­u­a­tion, the Comte’s feel­ings for the Comtesse are real. He’s a Don Juan, and a scalawag, but he truly believes he is in love with her, which makes los­ing her to his Page a poignant moment in the midst of a very comic situation.

It can­not be acci­den­tal that the finale for act 1, which has the Comte right in the mid­dle of every­thing, is so much more enter­tain­ing and com­plex than the finale for act 2, after he has left the stage. The first act finale is one of the num­bers taken from Viag­gio a Reims. In its orig­i­nal form it was a “Grand Ensem­ble for 14 Voices.” In Comte Ory this is reduced to seven voices, but still makes a mar­velous effect, start­ing off with an extended a cap­pella sec­tion, then devel­op­ing into a rol­lick­ing, mad-cap con­certed num­ber where melodies and rhythms are no sooner estab­lished than they shift into some­thing new, bounc­ing between soloists, and instru­ments in the orches­tra, at a daz­zling rate, but with­out ever sound­ing fran­tic, thanks to Rossini’s genius. By con­trast, the short act 2 finale is a per­fect musi­cal expres­sion of life with­out the enter­tain­ing Comte Ory in it: con­ven­tional, rou­tine, and not nearly as inter­est­ing as when he is around.

Rossini was pop­u­lar with cartoonists

Rossini also con­veys humor through his skill in expand­ing the music forms found in French opera. For instance, at the begin­ning of the sec­ond act the Comtesse and her friends sing a cho­rus about how peace­ful and secure they feel in their cas­tle. But before they even fin­ish the cho­rus a ter­ri­ble storm erupts in the orches­tra which fright­ens them. This, in turn, is inter­rupted by the a cap­pella off-stage cho­rus of the Comte and his men (in their dis­guise as pil­grim nuns — but singing in their nat­ural male voices, yet another layer of humor) beg­ging for shel­ter. Rossini fin­ishes what started as a placid cho­rus for female voices by mix­ing in the (male) pil­grims, and a storm in the orches­tra, and using what is some­times a sta­tic musi­cal form, to fur­ther the plot, and con­vey humor in a vari­ety of shift­ing situations.

The entire opera is both totally Rossini and totally Gal­lic to the core. Rossini never wrote any­thing wit­tier, more sophis­ti­cated, or more delight­ful. Every page is a mir­a­cle. Hec­tor Berlioz, not exactly Rossini’s biggest fan, said it was “a col­lec­tion of diverse beau­ties which, if divided up inge­niously, would suf­fice to make the for­tune of not one, but two or three operas.”

When Franz Liszt con­ducted Le Comte Ory in Weimar he said it “bub­bled like cham­pagne” and had mag­nums of the stuff dis­trib­uted in the audi­ence dur­ing the sec­ond act. The opera deserves no less.

These pro­gram notes orig­i­nally appeared in the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Opera Play­bill, March 2011.