The Wicked Adventures of
At Seattle Opera August 2016
Music by Gioachino Rossini
Long Story Short:
Three’s a crowd when both a randy playboy and a lovesick teenager invade a chaste noblewoman’s bed.
Count Ory, a wild party-boy, disguises himself first as a wise hermit and then as a nun.
Isolier, his teenage page-boy, is played by a woman. He loves Countess Adèle.
Raimbaud, a buddy of Ory’s, aids and abets his lascivious schemes.
The Tutor was asked by Count Ory’s father to keep his son on the straight and narrow. Alas, the Tutor isn’t very good at his job.
Countess Adèle is a melancholy noblewoman. She misses her brother, who’s off fighting the Crusades, and has a soft spot for young Isolier.
Ragonde is an efficient matron who runs Countess Adèle’s castle.
The other characters are are lonely maidens, roistering mercenaries, peasants, and crusaders.
Where & When?
In and around a château in the Loire valley; one silly summer in the 1200s.
What’s Going On?
The mice will play while the cat’s away… In a small medieval French village whose men are all off fighting the Crusades, the ladies are easy prey for that notorious local bad boy, Count Ory. Hoping to encourage relaxed morals, Ory passes himself off as a wise guru who has come to town to help ease lonely women’s heartaches and dispense sage counsel on all questions of love. The ladies eagerly bare their souls to the “hermit”; even Ory’s own teenage page, Isolier, comes seeking advice for the lovelorn. Isolier confesses that he’s madly in love with Countess Adèle, who lives in a nearby castle; what’s more, the boy has invented a clever strategem for infiltrating her home.
Ory’s “wise hermit” disguise is spoiled by his own Tutor, who promised Ory’s father he’d make his son behave. So Ory moves on to Isolier’s plan: that night, during a furious storm, he and his men disguise themselves as nuns and knock on Adèle’s door, begging her to offer them refuge from the wicked Count Ory, who, they say, is pursuing them. Isolier and Ory both inveigle themselves into Adèle’s bedroom; but in the ensuing love trio, between the darkness and the disguises, none of the three of them knows exactly whose body they’re embracing. Luckily for all concerned, as dawn comes up, the men of the village return home from the Crusades, and Isolier helps Ory escape.
About the Composer
Rossini’s first opera premiered in 1810, when the composer was 18 years old. By the time he turned 21, he had written 10 operas for various theaters in northern Italy, many of them in extreme haste. He wrote The Barber of Seville over the course of 13 days in 1816, wearing his bathrobe and not shaving the entire time. (The premiere was famously an unmitigated disaster, thanks to a tenor with a bloody nose, an unexplained cat wandering around the stage, and an anti-Rossini clacque who booed, jeered, and hollered all the way through the opera.)
Count Ory will take its place as the fourth Rossini comedy presented at Seattle Opera (joining The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola, and The Italian Girl in Algiers). Other important Rossini operas include the comedies The Turk in Italy and The Thieving Magpie, as well as serious operas Otello, Elizabeth Queen of England, The Lady of the Lake, Semiramide, and William Tell.
Rossini retired when he was 37 years old. He was fabulously wealthy and near exhaustion; the man had composed 40 operas in 19 years. There is evidence that he was manic-depressive, and probably also a hypochondriac. In 1855, still in search of better medical care, Rossini and his second wife, Olympe Pélissier moved to Paris, where Rossini became a central figure in Paris society. His dinner parties (which always featured lively conversation, music, and incredible Italian food) were as famous and popular as his operas.
Rossini in Paris
For a period of time in the late 1820s Rossini relocated to Paris. The city offered several advantages: more money, a supportive government, bigger and better orchestras, and singers who were used to cooperating with each other instead of competing all the time. Rossini accepted the directorship of the Théâtre des Italiens, which traditionally presented Italian opera to Parisian audiences, and diligently set himself to mastering the French language and French musical style. Soon enough, he adapted for the Paris Opéra two serious Italian operas of his—Maometto II became Le siège de Corinth and Mosè in Egitto became Moïse—giving birth to the genre known as French Grand Opera. His final opera, William Tell, was performed 500 times before he died in 1869, though it isn’t performed very often today due to its massive size and scale. (Its overture, however, has delighted millions through its association with the Lone Ranger.)
Le Comte Ory, which premiered in 1828 at the Paris Opéra, was a curious mix of recycled and original material. The story comes from a bawdy old Picardy ballad; the famously prolific French playwright Eugène Scribe had collaborated on a light vaudeville entertainment on the subject in 1817, which he then expanded (by adding Act One) into the opera’s libretto. Rossini, meanwhile, repurposed lots of the music he had written three years earlier for Il viaggio a Reims, an opera he never expected to hear again. The famous tenor Adolphe Nourrit, who created the difficult role of Ory, helped Rossini adapt the earlier material. Le Comte Ory was performed in Paris hundreds of times over the decades that followed, and influenced composers such as Donizetti, Auber, Lecocq, Offenbach, and Messager. Many musicologists consider Le Comte Ory the first French operetta.
Drag, Disguise, & Dummies
Comedy and opera were made for each other. Music can function as a laugh track, and great comic composers like Rossini understood how to write music that makes it easy for an audience to laugh—music that is light and quick and reassuring and even silly. Before he moved to France and wrote Count Ory, Rossini had written a handful of opera buffas, comic Italian operas derived from the centuries-old Italian form of improvised comedy known as commedia dell’arte. (Commedia was basically live-action Looney Tunes cartoons, full of stock characters, improvisation, and slapstick. The roots of commedia dell’arte reach back to the comedy of ancient Rome, and the form itself reached its heyday during the Italian Renaissance. It profoundly influenced not only comic opera but also the plays of Shakespeare and Molière.)
The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory is a zany sex romp, guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face. Rossini, whose other opera comedies are all G-rated, was reportedly shocked when he first read the outline of the plot; these characters’ genders are unstable even for comic opera, and the action climaxes in a three-way. But Rossini’s librettist, Scribe, assured him he’d write a libretto so innocent it would be appropriate for a girls’ school. The resulting text is hardly deep or profound. But it is amusing, particularly when wed to Rossini’s irresistible music.
Two different types of cross-dressing intersect and cancel each other out in the opera’s ridiculous climax. When Count Ory and his men disguise themselves as nuns, it’s like the wolf dressing up as Grandmother in “Little Red Riding Hood,” an egregious abuse of innocence by a dangerous predator. But Isolier is a pants role—a male character assigned to a female singer, both to connote the character’s youth and innocence, and for a bit of sexual frisson. Rossini’s hetero audience could laugh at the idea of a man mistakenly grabbing a boy, instead of a girl, in the dark; but the opera also invites everyone to enjoy the encounter, knowing that just as “she” is really a “he,” so the other “he” is really a “she.”
The Music of Count Ory
Rossini was one of the titans of bel canto opera, feasts of song that showcase exceptional singers. Tremendous technical skill is required to perform his music. And because singing bel canto keeps the voice in tip-top shape, singers love the challenge of performing Rossini. Like a good athletic workout, his music leaves the singer exhausted but healthy.
In any Rossini comedy, you’ll hear two extremes of musical text-setting: patter and coloratura. Patter singing is just that: the voice pattering like raindrops, with a different musical note for each syllable, or even an entire sentence chattered away on the same note. In French, patter makes for outrageous tongue-twisters, such as Raimbaud’s breathless Act Two aria.
Coloratura singing means many, many musical notes for each syllable of text (sometimes so many that by the time you get to the end of a word you’ve forgotten how it began!). When performed by a great singer, coloratura can be ravishingly pretty; Rossini generally uses it to highlight extreme emotions, whether melancholy (as in Adèle’s Act One aria) or sexual excitement (much of Count Ory’s music).
In Count Ory, declamative music known as recitative moves the plot along very quickly and links all the arias (solos, showcasing an individual character and performer) and ensembles (featuring more than one singer). The ensemble is one of opera’s unique pleasures—something with no equivalent in any other art form. Count Ory features several lively crowd-scene ensembles, including the chorus of lonely women all pressing their problems upon Ory’s “wise hermit,” and Ory’s rowdy men, all dressed as nuns, getting drunk in Adèle’s castle late at night. The first act climaxes with an outrageous a capella septet following the surprise revelation of the hermit’s true identity (music recycled from Il viaggio a Reims); the second act climaxes with the famous trio for Ory, Isolier, and Adèle, a piece as sexy as it is ludicrous.
Rossini’s Italian operas have terrific overtures, but after that the orchestra pretty much stays in the background, functioning mostly as musical wallpaper to set off the glorious voices. (The orchestra usually pulls focus again when it’s time to illustrate, musically, the obligatory storm scene.) But the orchestration is much more subtle in Count Ory. Details of orchestral color add spice and life to every number, and when it’s time for this opera’s storm, the singers add their voices too—Adèle’s women shriek in terror while Ory’s men (disguised as nuns) pray.