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.
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.
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.
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 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.