The timeless humor of men in skirts and the enduring beauty of Rossini’s music come together for an evening of captivating entertainment in the Juilliard Opera Center’s production of Le Comte Ory this month. One of four French operas by the composer, the work was premiered in 1828, just one year prior to Rossini’s retirement from operatic composition at the age of 36 after the completion of his epic Guillaume Tell.
Set in medieval France around the year 1200, the entire proceedings of the opera take place in and around the fictional castle of Formoutiers. The men of the castle have left for a crusade in the Holy Land and the young Count Ory, a notorious womanizer, has decided to pursue Countess Adèle, mistress of the castle, while her brother is away. With the encouragement of his sidekick Raimbaud, Ory dresses up as a hermit and dispenses advice first to his unsuspecting page, Isolier, who confesses his own love for Adèle, and then to Adèle, who in turn reveals her affection for Isolier. Shortly after Adèle’s stewardess Ragonde arrives with a letter announcing the return of Adèle’s brother and his entourage in two days time, Ory is unmasked by his disapproving tutor.
In Act II, Ory and his men gain entrance to the castle disguised as nuns. In one of the opera’s comedic highlights, they find the wine cellar and alternate between raucous carousing and devout prayer whenever someone approaches. In the meantime, Isolier realizes the true identity of “Sister Colette” and her cohorts, and together with Adèle lays a trap for Ory that involves further stratagems and cross-dressing disguises. The truth in all its complexity is revealed when trumpet calls announce the return of the crusaders, and Ory’s exploits, at least for the time being, are put to an end.
Written by Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson at Rossini’s request as an expansion of their previously published one-act comedy to two acts, the libretto allegedly derives its plot from a medieval crusader’s ballad that appeared in a 1785 collection by Pierre-Antoine de la Place. According to musicologist Philip Gossett (in The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera), Rossini utilized the tune of the ballad in the orchestral prelude and second-act drinking song.
By the time he moved from Italy to Paris in 1824, Rossini had already composed more than 30 operatic works and was ardently received by the city’s opera-loving public. Reflecting the two main genres within early 19th-century French opera as well as the distinct traditions of Italian and French opera at the time, the city boasted three major companies: the Paris Opéra, the Opéra-Comique, and the Théâtre-Italien, where Rossini served as director from 1824-26. His first new work for the French public—in Italian, as Rossini wanted to master the subtleties of the French language before using a French libretto—was Il Viaggio a Reims. Written in honor of the coronation of Charles X at Rheims, the opera was first performed at the Théâtre-Italien on June 19, 1825.
Rossini’s first French opera, Le Siège de Corinthe, premiered October 9, 1826, at the Salle Le Peletier (home of the Paris Opéra) to great success. He received some amount of criticism, however, for altering the orchestration in response to his initial audiences’ perceived lethargy; in a historic example of the pot calling the kettle black, Berlioz complained that “he put the big drum everywhere, as well as the cymbals and the triangle, and the trombones and the ophicleide [a precursor to the tuba and euphonium] for bundles of chords; and, coming down mightily on sudden rhythms, not to mention harmonies, with such thunderbolts that the audience, rubbing its eyes, took delight in new sorts of emotions, livelier if not more musical than those which it had felt up to then.”
Rossini’s second French opera, Moïse et Pharon, was premiered by the Paris Opéra on March 26, 1827 and received an enthusiastic reception from both critics and audiences. Commenting on the role of this work in relation to Rossini’s profound contributions to the development of 19th-century opera, Herbert Weinstock notes in Rossini: A Biography,that “Aside from exalted praise for the score of Moïse, the chief burden of the Paris critiques was delight that real singing, of the sort long familiar at the Théâtre-Italien, at last had breached the defenses of the Opéra’s traditional prosodic declamation … The mid-19th-century renaissance of bel canto found one of its homes in Paris because of the Théâtre-Italien and because of Rossini’s direct influence upon the style of singing there are at the Opéra.”
The premiere of Le Comte Ory at the Opéra on August 20, 1828, was likewise a grand success, although, as chronicled by Weinstock, Adolphe Adam later wrote that “it was only at the sixtieth performance that the public began, after a year, to perceive that it was hearing a masterpiece.” A major indication of the opera’s historic importance was its performance at the Salle Le Peletier rather than the Théâtre de l’Opéra-Comique: Despite the opera’s humorous storyline, its musical structure did not adhere to the conventions of opéra comique, which featured short, self-contained numbers connected by spoken dialogue. Instead, Le Comte Ory was revolutionary in its employment of larger-scale forms, heavier orchestration, more demanding vocal writing, and use of recitative in the service of a comedic libretto. (A substantial portion of the music, in fact, is borrowed from Il Viaggio a Reims.) Berlioz is said to have particularly admired the scoring for the exquisitely conceived trio in Act II.
In describing his interpretation of the opera, director Sam Helfrich explains that his production entails a “fantasy version of the time period … the sets and costumes have medieval references, but you’ll also see modern props. I would describe it as a sort of ‘larger than life’ approach. I wanted to bring out the comedy and strictly adhering to the period setting wouldn’t be the best way to accomplish that. The opera is crazy and fun but also has really beautiful music, so my goal is to find the balance between physical comedy and time to just let the singers be heard.” The production marks Helfrich’s first collaboration with Juilliard.
Later eclipsed by such staples of the repertoire as Il Barbiere di Siviglia, L’Italiana in Algeri, and La Cenerentola, Le Comte Ory is not so well known to today’s audiences—perhaps simply, as Helfrich observes, because audiences mainly associate Rossini with his preponderant Italian works. The Wolf Trap Opera Company presented the work to great acclaim in summer 2006, however, in a production featuring Juilliard Opera Center alumnus Javier Abreu in the role of Ory, and the Juilliard Opera Center previously performed the opera in an English adaptation by Robert A. Simon, commissioned by Juilliard, on March 13-15, 1959. The work has never been performed at the Metropolitan Opera, but according to Bradley Wilber of metmaniac.com, will be included in the Met’s 2010-11 season.
The Juilliard Opera Center’s production of Le Comte Ory will feature tenor Alek Shrader as Count Ory; bass Marc Webster as his tutor; mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne as Isolier, the count’s page; bass Paul La Rosa as Raimbaud, a knight and companion of the Count; soprano Brenda Rae as Adèle, the Countess of Formoutiers; contralto Renée Tatum as Ragonde, chatelaine of the castle; and soprano Jessica Klein as Alice, a young peasant girl. Asher Fisch will conduct the opera’s three performances.