It has been a month of bad decisions and choices. I made some mistakes that have certainly made me feel awful. And I shouldn’t be feeling bad, because, after all, I am supposed to be on holiday. But that is almost over now and thankfully I will return to a routine I never expected I would enjoy as much as I am. That change I made in my life in September paid out. It brought stability and security. It also brought an increased amount of loneliness, but I can handle that. I am used to being lonely. It is the hustle and bustle of my previous lifestyle that I find tiresome and occasionally tedious. It most certainly is surreal and illogical. I have given up trying to both understand and explain people’s actions. They do not make sense. They never will. That is the destiny of Greece. To be overshadowed by its own inability to make sense. It’s a native kind of thing.
No matter! I will move forward with my list, by providing an article that should make me feel better (and you, of course, my devoted readers), because it is a comedy of the most excellent kind and composed by one of the most intriguing human beings to have graced the face of this wretched planet. So, without any further ado, I present to you Rossini’s penultimate opera: Le Comte Ory!
SPOILER ALERT! IF YOU HAVE NOT EXPERIENCED THE JOY AND HAPPINESS THIS OPERA IS CAPABLE OF PROVIDING, DO SO FIRST. OTHERWISE, I PROMISE YOU, YOU WILL NOT ENJOY IT AS MUCH…
It was a chance encounter. It was a Rossinian work I had never heard of before and it was on Greek television. Every Sunday night, the parliament channel (!) plays operas. Yes, it does! It is one of the few great things that happen on Greek television. Anyway, this one evening – years ago – they had the Glyndebourne version from the late ‘90s. For lack of a better occupation that evening, I sat through the entire thing and never regretted a moment. The Glyndebourne production (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3_zvRyjors) is a good take on the opera. The cast is adequate – with Annick Massis as Adèle and Diana Montague as Isolier topping the list – for it is an impossible work for the protagonists to sing and the staging is witty, charming and slightly bathetic at times, but scores with some typical comic gags that bring out laughter sure enough. It immediately won my heart and reaffirmed my already deep affection of Rossini’s work in general.
So, what is it all about? This is the first time that I begin any article with a praise of a production and not the work itself. It is necessary, for I kind of like the chance encounter with a hugely amusing work and it explains why I am so particularly fond of it. Of course there are many other reasons why I do, but I thought I might start with the less obvious one.
To put it simply: this opera is yet another take on the Don Juan subject matter. Only, the historical background is placed during the Crusades and it is the Count of Ory who is chasing after women. And, because this is Rossini, the opera is turned into a clear comedy – not the dubious, yet intriguing version of Mozart.
The story is quite simple: the young Count of Ory, taking advantage of the fact that many women have been left unprotected, because their husbands have gone to fight the Crusades, scurries the French countryside in search of potential mates. He has his eye fixed on one in particular: the Countess Adèle, who is single, but has made a vow not to love anyone until her beloved brother returns from the Crusades. Adèle is also a very pious and restrained woman, which makes the temptation for the Count even greater. The Count however is not alone, because the young nobleman Isolier, who – as it so happens – is Ory’s page, is also enamored with Adèle (who is his cousin, by the way, but who cares, it is a tradition in France to sleep with your cousin apparently…) Isolier is nothing like the Count. He is honorable, trustworthy and he truly loves Adèle. He does not wish to conquer her for the fun of it. His intentions are true, unlike Ory’s, who only cares about the sex, not the love. Now, Ory has taken camp outside of Adèle’s castle and poses as an hermit, successfully seducing the young girls of the village – because, of course, who would say no to a hermit, if he claims it is God’s will to go for it! One could write a treatise about the rather poignant comment this hermit (and the ensuing nun scenes) disguise makes, in association with everything church associated, but I will not delve into that. The point is that Isolier is also fooled by Ory’s disguise and in his attempt to gain the hermit’s help for wooing Adèle, he blurts out his own plan of entering the castle, namely, that he wants to dress as a nun on a pilgrimage and ask for shelter in the castle. Ory is mighty pleased with this idea and promises to help Isolier, at which point we finally meet the Countess, who comes to meet the hermit. She too is in love with Isolier, though she has not yet revealed it to him, but finds it impossible to give in to those feelings, because she swore not to let any man near her heart, until her brother returns. Ory tells her that it is God’s will that she break her oath. However, just as the two lovers are about to jump at each other, he also warns her that Isolier is a page to the notorious Count Ory and therefore probably not a suitable match. He in turn is discovered by his tutor, who has been on his trail from the beginning of the opera, and before either man can enter the castle, they are both left wanting. By the end of the first act, we also learn that the crusaders are on their way home, but that is obviously not the end of it.
While the first act takes place in its entirety outside, the second act is located inside the castle. In typical Rossini fashion we have a storm (he loved those for some reason) and lo and behold a troop of nuns comes knocking at the castle door, asking for protection against – whom else? – Count Ory! Of course the audience knows that it is Ory himself under the habit and he has brought his tutor, his friend Raimbaud and a number of his followers (but not Isolier) along. The Countess falls for the trick and gives them shelter. Ory introduces himself as sister Colette and prepares for a night of passion. First, he and his men raid (literally) the wine cellar. On the outbreak of night, Isolier too arrives at the castle, to inform Adèle that Ory’s father is on his way, along with the crusaders, to the castle. Adèle informs him that there are nuns in the castle, at which point Isolier realizes it is in truth Ory and swears to protect Adèle’s honor. What ensues is one of the most hilarious, possibly the greatest comic scene ever written and most definitely the only one of its kind. One has to see it, to believe it. Rossini composes a ménage a trois, like, literally! There is a bed, there is a candle, there is a woman, a man and a trouser role and there is a lot of sensual music. And action! On the bed. Multiple orgasms follow, until, at some point, the spell breaks from the outside, because the crusaders have arrived. Adèle’s honor has been successfully protected by Isolier, Ory, admitting defeat to his page, has to flee from his father and the returning crusaders, the long anticipated brother returns and nothing stands in the way of the two lovers, who can finally enjoy their love freely and without remorse or guilt.
You can understand, dear reader, that this plot is filled with buffonic moments. Apart from the obvious sex scene at the very end, this opera is rife with situational comedy. What is particularly interesting is the fact, that despite the vulgar theme, it never derails. There is class, style and even noblesse in it (provided largely in part by Adèle). Even the wine scene does not bring things down – it does make for a small hole in the plot, but the plot had to be filled somehow and so that was added.
One has to remember that this was the second to last opera Rossini composed. After Le Comte Ory he only composed Guillaume Tell. He deprived the world of his genius, but the forty operas he did leave behind are the compensation, even today. Ory was composed for Paris. The libretto is in French. The music is a strange and often unexpected whole. It is descriptive of two modes: the direct Italian mode, where everything you say is exactly what you mean (mainly this dominates the first act) and the subtle French mode, where you say one thing and mean another (which dominates the second act, obviously). Also, Rossini was not really inventing anything; he borrowed a great number of pieces from a previous opera of his and added the rest in lightning speed.
Rossini did not care about the inconsistencies in this work. This is also one reason why the opera ends so abruptly and one might even say with an anticlimax. The most striking inconsistency is of course the bed scene. It is peculiar that Ory does not recognize that he is in fact touching – to put it lightly – Isolier and not Adèle (forget about the fact that Isolier is sung by a woman). This is not the case of Octavian fooling the Ochs, because in his youthful appearance, he looks still a bit like a girl. Ory touches Isolier. It is impossible not to sense that this is a man. But, once again, this is opera, and it is this acceptance of the surreal in this case that makes it work out so fantastically well. That and the music. Atypically perhaps, Rossini has a master stroke for the sex scene: instead of pacing it in his usual fast manner, he chooses a brilliant slow rhythm, a sensual melody with outbursts, combining the three voices of the soprano, the mezzo and the tenor perfectly together. The music during this scene breaths slowly and reveals everything. Nothing stays hidden. It is almost so slow, that it becomes self-absorbed and self-gratifying. It is, in one word, orgasmic.
Finally, I return to the challenge of producing this work. The music is extremely challenging, especially for the three main roles. The tessituras for the soprano and the tenor are high, the demand on agility and speed obvious, because this is Rossini after all, but most importantly the chemistry has to sit. The singers need to be good actors with a sense of timing (the most important thing in comedy) and they have to – at least pretend – to like each other. The difficulty in the music, the expectations from the singers to perform and the staging of the bed scene are the main reasons why this particular opera, although extremely entertaining and fun, is rarely being taken up by the big houses. Luckily for us, the Met did it a while back and with an exceptional cast. The staging was also relatively good – I have a certain dislike towards the idea of a “theatre within the theatre” when we are not talking about Ariadne auf Naxos – but it worked just fine. But it is truly the trio of stars that make this production so satisfying: Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato and Diana Damrau shine in this opera, which seems to have been composed just for them. We are truly blest with this particular cast in this particular opera and I strongly recommend you watch it. I have, multiple times! The bed scene is on repeat on my playlist…