LE COMTE ORY – Gioachino Rossini

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 Eugène 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.