LE COMTE ORY
Opera in 2 acts.
Libretto : Eugène Scribe and C.G. Delestre-Poirson, after Scribe’s 1816 vaudeville.
First performed: Théâtre de l’Opéra (salle Le Peletier), 20 August 1828.
Based on Piotr Kaminski, Mille et un opéras, Paris, Fayard, 2003
- LE COMTE ORY, a horny young nobleman (tenor)
- LA COMTESSE Adèle de Formoutiers (soprano)
- ISOLIER, the Comte’s page (mezzo-soprano)
- RAGONDE, Adèle’s friend (mezzo-soprano)
- RAIMBAUD, the Comte’s sidekick (bass)
- LE GOUVERNEUR, the Comte’s tutor (bass)
The story is set in Touraine, outside the castle of the counts of Formoutiers, during the Crusades, around the year 1200. Comte Ory, a young libertine, wants to seduce the Comtesse Adèle, who has sequestered herself in a château while her brother is away at the Crusades. He disguises himself first as a holy man (in Act I) and then as a pilgrimess (in Act II) – but his page Isolier, who loves Adèle, thwarts his plans.
The men of the county of Formoutiers, led by their castellan, brother of the Countess Adèle, have left for the crusade. The young and dissolute Comte Ory, accompanied by his faithful Raimbaud, has disguised himself as a hermit to console the lonely maidens. The scoundrel’s main objective is the young and beautiful Countess Adèle, sequestered in the château of Formoutiers with several of the most beautiful women in the neighbourhood. Her duenna, Dame Ragonde, announces her imminent visit to the Comte. The Comte appears and blesses his flock, then listens to their desires. Up pop the Gouverneur, the Comte’s tutor, and his page Isolier, whom the Comte’s father sent in search of his son. The Gouverneur has had enough of his tiresome office. Seeing an unusual gathering of pretty girls, he suspects, not without reason, that the Count isn’t far away. Isolier is all a tremble to learn that the Countess is coming, because he has a crush on her. He decides to consult the hermit. The Comte is furious to discover he has a rival, but is taken by Isolier’s plan: to insinuate himself into the castle, disguised as a pilgrimess. The Comtess arrives, hardly indifferent to the young page’s charms, yet tortured by sorrow. The hermit releases the Comtesse from her vows of eternal solitude, which she welcomes with delight. The old sage also warns Adèle against the plots of the young page, who’s only acting for his master. Suddenly, the Gouverneur recognises Raimbaud, and reveals to all the world the hermit’s true identity. In the confusion, Ragonde gives the Comtesse a message from her brother: the crusade is over, and the crusaders are only two days away from the château. Furious, the Comte decides to mount his attack the next night.
The Comtesse and her friends believe themselves secure in their château. A storm breaks, and someone knocks at the door: it’s a group of unhappy pilgrimesses, 14 of them, fleeing the outrages of both the tempest and Comte Ory. One of them comes to present her homages to the Comtesse.
Her ardent hand-kissing slightly worries the beautiful Adèle who nonetheless doesn’t suspect another trick by the Comte. The pilgrimesses are, in reality, his disguised companions. Raimbaud discovers the castle’s wine cellar, occasion for a jolly song. Isolier announces to the Comtesse and her friends that the crusaders will soon arrive. Learning of the pilgrimesses’ presence, the page immediately guesses their true identities. He must prevent at all costs the husbands from learning they were there. Under cover of darkness, the Comte tries to seduce Adèle. Disguised as a woman, Isolier responds to his advances, all the while seizing the opportunity to declare his love to the Comtesse.
No longer able to contain himself, the Comte drops his disguise and showers the page with tender kisses. We hear the bugle; it’s the crusaders, among them the Comtesse’s brother and the Comte’s father. The Comte and his companions flee through a secret passage.
Le comte Ory, châtelain redouté,
Après la gloire, n’aime rien que la beauté,
Et la bombance, les combats et la gaieté.
What better way to start our journey into the world of opera than with Rossini? Rossini and Mozart were the first opera composers I fell in love with, five years before opera became an all-consuming passion. His music is life enhancing; its infectious gaiety makes you want to stand up and cheer for the sheer joy of being alive.
Le comte Ory, one of Rossini’s late operas written for Paris, is a comic masterpiece – a mixture of risky situation and indelicate suggestion, mediaeval chivalry and musical elegance.
It’s Rossini’s only French comic opera, and was one of the mainstays of the Parisian stage in the nineteenth century, last performed, for the 433rd time, at the Palais Garnier in 1884 – decades after many of the early comic operas and serious Neapolitan works had vanished. It influenced Auber, Adam and Offenbach, the masters of lighter French opera.
Rossini recycled some of the music from his Il viaggio a Reims (1825), a pièce d’occasion for the coronation of Charles X, which he took off after three performances. The canny Rossini then used six pieces from Il viaggio for Ory. The Gran pezzo concertato a 14 voci, a bel canto ensemble showpiece for four baritones, four basses, three soprani, two tenors and a contralto, became the Act I finale, one of Rossini’s most exhilarating. (Rossini was an inveterate self-borrower; he’d used the overture to the Barber of Seville twice before!)
- The Act I introduction (16 minutes) comprises a chorus (“Jouvencelles, venez vite”), a suave cavatine for Ory (“Que les destins prospères”) and a quartet with chorus where the chattering peasants spill out their woes to the saint, which builds up to the patented Rossinian crescendo.
- “Cette aventure singulière”, the allegretto of his tutor’s aria
- The duet “Ah! quel respect, Madame” (another borrowing from Viaggio) – sung here by Sumi Jo and John Aler.
- The generally acknowledged jewel of the opera is the trio “A la faveur de cette nuit obscure” (sung here by Juan Oncina, Sari Barabas and Cora Canne-Meijer in the 1956 Gui production)
Among Rossini’s comic operas, it’s closest in spirit to Matilde di Shabran, which also combines sexual politics with the romance of the Middle Ages. The tenor is, unusually, the antagonist in both operas. In Matilde, he’s a misogynist who’s tamed by a wily woman; in Ory, he’s a satryriasist with designs on the soprano. Juan Diego Flórez, the Rossinian tenor of the day, has sung both male roles opposite Annick Massis.
Ory is, like Don Giovanni, a creature of pure animal appetite and impulse. He wants to seduce as many women as he can, and get drunk.
“Eating, loving, singing, and digesting,” Rossini once remarked, “are, in truth, the four acts of the comic opera known as life, and they pass like bubbles of a bottle of champagne. Whoever lets them break without having enjoyed them is a complete fool.”
Ory’s single-minded pursuit of pleasure, though, makes a fool of him. He thinks he’s cleverer than he is, the other characters call him a demon and are appalled by his wickedness – but his tutor easily rumbles his disguises and his page outwits him.
Adèle is a restrained moralist, the super-ego to Ory’s id. She lives in a castle as tightly secured as a chastity belt, and has repressed her feelings to the point of neurosis. She is, she says towards the end of Act I, a victim of melancholy (“en proie à la tristesse”), and wants the holy man’s advice. The Comte’s remedy is simple: fall in love. Yes, she agrees, in a burst of coloratura – and declares her feelings for Isolier.
Adèle wants true love, the sincere lover who knows how to conceal his tender ardour. The Comte is never sincere; he spends nearly all the play disguised, and the only time he is himself is when he is unmasked. (Is he sincere? wonders his Tutor, when he suspects the holy man is the Comte in disguise.) Ironically, Isolier – who, as the Comte’s page, has the potential to become like his master – is both sincere and insincere. The character is sincere, a clever, high-spirited, affectionate youth, but the singer playing him is only her sex when the character is disguised.
The prolific Eugène Scribe based the libretto on a vaudeville he wrote in 1816, an “anecdote of the 11th century” based on a mediaeval ballad about the libidinous Comte Ory. (You can find the vaudeville here.)
In the original ballad, the Count and his companions assail a convent, disguised as nuns – and seduce the abbess and her sisters.
Neuf mois ensuite, vers le mois de janvier,
L’histoire ajoute comme un fait très singulier,
Que chaque nonne eut un petit chevalier.
A little knight for a night’s work! Obviously a play in which an entire convent is deflowered would never do as family entertainment.
(Three years later, though, under the July Monarchy, Scribe would create a convent of damned undead nuns for Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, and six years after that, for Auber’s Domino noir, he would send a novice nun on one last spree before she takes her final vows and became abbess. Honour is saved; she’s released from her vows so she can marry.)
This is still a risqué opera, reveling in the sort of sophisticated naughtiness that pleased the sophisticated Parisians. Its theme is a man making an assault on a woman’s virtue, but virtue triumphs. It flirts with immorality without consummating it. The Comte wants to seduce the Comtesse, but the Comtesse resists his blandishments; the audience wants to see both the seduction (at least the attempt), and her resistance.
It riffs off the ballad’s religious mockery; the abbess becomes a mere countess, but the Comte disguises himself as a holy man to seduce the village girls; later, he and his cronies infiltrate the château disguised as pilgrims (not nuns). They raid the cellars and carouse, breaking off to sing hymns whenever their hosts go by.
There’s also a whiff of taboo sexuality. The Comte’s page Isolier is a trousers role, a male part sung by a mezzo; at the end, Isolier dresses up as Adèle – and the Comte makes love to him, believing he is she. After making love to his twice-transvestite page, he creeps out through a back passage, in disgrace and his libido dampened, while Isolier claims the girl. It’s as if Don Giovanni’s servant were Cherubino, not Leporello, and Cherubino waltzed off with Donna Elvira, with nary a statue in sight. Pants roles (principal boys) were, of course, a long tradition of opera; many of Rossini’s serious operas had armour-bearing mezzos playing men, but in an opera as risqué as this, one does wonder. Besides, a woman playing a boy disguised as a woman, made love to by a man who mistakes her for a woman, and who pairs off with another woman? We’re not so far here from Strauss’s Rosenkavalier.
To watch: The 1997 Glyndebourne recording (on YouTube). It has an excellent, largely Francophone cast (Marc Laho, Annick Massis, Ludovic Tézier), while Diana Montague is a very sympathetic Isolier. It’s staged straight (no bizarre or alienating “concepts”) but imaginatively, and is very funny.
The 2011 Met broadcast has a starrier cast – Flórez, Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato – but I’m not fond of Bartlett Sher’s “stage within a stage” concept.
To listen to: Vittorio Gui’s 1956 recording, starring Juan Oncina, Sari Barabas and Cora Canne-Meijer; some cuts, but full of Gallic wit. Gramophone said, “like champagne and the works of P.G. Wodehouse, one of life’s few infallible tonics”.
Next time: Matricide and human sacrifice.