Some Rossini comedies are G-rated. The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, and The Italian Girl in Algiers are great operas for little kids. (Enjoy music from our productions of these shows on SOUNDCLOUD.) Not only are those three full of zany humor; their music is extremely accessible to young people, full of catchy tunes, dazzling pyrotechnics, and—most importantly for young listeners—propulsive rhythms. These three operas also teach important lessons. The stories reward characters who display loyalty, perseverance, humility, and quick thinking, whereas characters who are bossy, cruel, selfish, or vain get punished by the great scourge of comedy: laughter. And in Rossini’s Italian comedies, all the characters—even the villains—always live happily ever after.
Count Ory marches to a different drumbeat. Written in French, this sex-obsessed opera really isn’t for little kids. (Teenagers, on the other hand, are bound to love it!) When Rossini moved to post-Napoleonic Paris from the conservative Catholic states of the Italian peninsula in the 1820s, he entered a much more liberal culture, and adjusted his writing accordingly. Count Ory is a curious mix of vulgarity and sophistication: as a composition it’s elegant, delicately balanced, full of subtle wit and Gallic irony. (Example: Rossini writes a sweet little a cappella barbershop quartet for Ory and three of his men, pretending to be nuns imploring mercy with some of Scribe’s wittiest rhymes. Twice Rossini deploys this music as an interruption—first, of the wild storm, and later on, of the raucous drinking chorus.) But the only word for the plot, which follows a lusty scoundrel’s two unsuccessful attempts to trick a prude into having sex with him, is “vulgar”—and the word is chosen carefully. It derives from the Latin vulgus, “common people,” and reminds us to honor the bawdy medieval literary traditions that gave birth to this story—and to our modern languages.
Count Ory’s Medieval Ballad
The “vulgar tongues” of modern English and Italian begin with two masterpieces of world literature: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron. Both are fourteenth-century frame tales containing lots of stories told by different narrators. Both display a variety of genres, including generous helpings of bawdy comedy. Both Chaucer and Boccaccio, for instance, tell a ridiculous bed-swapping story about two young men who are in and out of three beds with a husband, wife, and their teenage daughter over the course of a very lusty night (Chaucer’s “Reeve’s Tale,” Boccaccio’s Day 9 Tale 6). The surreal bedroom scene that climaxes Count Ory could easily pass for a story from Chaucer or Boccaccio.
Count Ory seems to have originated as a fabliau, a kind of bawdy story-song popular in medieval France. Real events may have inspired this particular story. Below, I’ve posted and translated the old ballad of Count Orry, as printed (and spelled!) in a 1785 collection of “Pièces intéressantes et peu connues, pour servir à l’histoire et à la littérature,” ("Interesting, little-known pieces, in the service of history and literature," Volume 3) by Pierre-Antoine de La Place. As you’ll see, this 1785 version is almost in modern French.
One of the fascinating things about this centuries-old tale of Count Ory is how the focus of the humor has shifted over time. This medieval ballad contains most of the plot elements from Rossini’s opera: the crowd of lusty knights all dressed as nuns, the crafty page-boy who comes up with the scheme, the nuns beating on the door and asking for shelter, claiming that they’re fleeing that awful Count Ory. But here, the joke really is at the expense of the women. The story begins with Orry wanting to “désennuyer” the nuns, to relieve them of ennui (frustrated boredom, brought on in this case by celibacy), and ends when the lovely young Abbess gets onboard with Sister Colette’s agenda. Similar stories from other medieval sources assume an unspoken rule of human behavior: that women who deny themselves sex are the ones who crave and enjoy it the most.
But by the time Rossini wrote Count Ory, in 1828, the culture had shifted. To the Romantics of the mid-nineteenth century, nothing belonged on a loftier pedestal than female chastity. Rossini was never a Romantic himself; but his librettist, Eugène Scribe, knew better than to launch an assault on religious celibacy when he dramatized this old story.
The powers-that-be in Scribe’s Paris wouldn’t let him openly mock nuns, monks, or friars. So Scribe changed the medieval poem’s Abbess into the opera’s Countess: a melancholy noblewoman, perhaps inspired by Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, at pains to maintain her vow not to interact with any man until her brother is back from the wars. And then, Scribe beefed up the role of the page-boy, basing the opera’s character of Isolier mostly on Cherubino, the sex-crazed page-boy at the heart of Le mariage de Figaro—not the opera by Mozart, but the original French play by Scribe’s predecessor, Beaumarchais. So it becomes a different joke. We’re no longer laughing so hard at the self-denying woman who’s clearly enjoying her night of lust. In 1828, opera-goers were laughing at the idiot nobleman making love to his own page. The opera's climactic love trio, a free-wheeling orgy with all three characters in bed together, may have pushed the standards of good taste at the Paris Opéra in the 1820s. But Rossini's delightful music helps audiences understand that it's all in good fun.
That scene of polyamorous confusion amused opera-goers throughout the nineteenth century, when Count Ory was extremely popular in Paris, and into the twentieth century, when Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal reused its basic set-up (scoundrelly nobleman makes love to mezzo/boy-masquerading-as-girl) in Der Rosenkavalier. Today, however, we have very different attitudes about all the elements of that final trio. Many in our audience will both laugh at and applaud Count Ory’s easy-going, sex-positive lifestyle. We may find the self-denying, hypocritical Countess amusing; but we can also sympathize with a woman whose tormented emotional life is resolved when she embraces her love for another woman. And today, the gender-fluid Isolier, who loves and is loved by both Ory and the Countess in that final trio, may well emerge as the opera’s most interesting and intriguing character.
Here’s the medieval ballad:LE COMTE ORRY, ET LES NONNES DE FARMOUTIER
Ancienne Romance Picarde
To give the nuns pleasure and relieve them of ennui.
Love rocks my cradle, and I can’t fall asleep.
And Orry makes them all dress as nuns;
Then, when night is dark, they’re going to beat on the door.
But what shall we do? Where will we find fourteen beds?”
Offers the newcomers half of her own.
Qui, pour l'Abbesse, d'amour ayant appétit,
who, having a taste for the Abbess’s love,
felt goosebumps to think of the lovely magpie he’d caught!
Ah! dit l'Abbesse... Ciel, comme vous m'embrassez?
—Vrai Dieu, Madame! Peut-on vous aimer assez?
“Gosh, my lady! My companions are all like that.”
I am taken by that cursed Count Ory!”
But forget about water and rood,
Because each nun is with her knight.”
Not seeing her nuns, and no longer hoping for mercy,
she took solace with Sister Colette instead!
the story adds (and what an extraordinary thing!)
that each nun had a little knight.
P.S. Listen for another version of the old "Count Ory" ballad tune, a nifty little march, quoted by Rossini both in the overture (beginning about 55 seconds in) and in the middle of the big Drinking Chorus in Act Two, sung to the words "Célébrons tour à tour le vin e la folie, le plaisir et l’amour" (Let's toast, one by one, wine, folly, pleasure, and love).