ST. PAUL, Minn. —
Here's the Opera Quiz question for today: In what comedy by Rossini does a count appear in disguise, not once but twice?
If you said The Barber of Seville, you would be correct.
And if you said Le Comte Ory — which the Met broadcasts this Saturday, February 2, 2013 at noon — you would also be correct.
But if you were to assume that Le Comte Ory ("Count Ory") is just a retread of the successful Barber formula, you would be incorrect. In Le Comte Ory, which some have called his masterpiece, he strikes a new note.
In 1828, Rossini was living in France. His Italian comedies, with their occasionally madcap exuberance, were in the past. He was writing for a new public, in a new language. It was in that setting that he came to create Le Comte Ory — almost the last opera he'd write. (The final one is William Tell, of the famous overture.)
Most operatic comedies have elements of farce, and Le Comte Ory is no exception. It has scheming seducers, respectable wives, and men putting on women's clothes — nuns' habits, to be precise.
Even so, its tone emphasizes urbanity and sophisticated enjoyment, perhaps suggesting those Parisian origins.
In the story, the local noblemen have all gone off to war, leaving their wives alone at home. This is an ideal situation for Count Ory, the notorious womanizer. Disguised as a holy man, he gains the ladies' confidence. He advises them — Countess Adele, in particular — that they should remedy their feelings of unhappiness by permitting themselves to feel love. (You see where he's going with this.) Unfortunately for the count, his disguise is exposed at the end of Act 1 — which doesn't stop him from trying a variation of the same trick in Act 2, which is where the nuns' habits come in.
It reads like a nonstop fest of zany antics and wacky humor. Rossini passes some of those opportunities up. But he compensates for it with his trademark strengths: musical wit, sly rhythms and orchestration, and abundant vocal display. The opera moves at its own pace, and the broader musical pacing gives us a chance to suspect that some human emotions are lurking behind all the tomfoolery.
For an example of both — the antics, and the emotion — here is the famous trio from Act 2, which Hector Berlioz thought was Rossini's "absolute masterpiece."
Blogging the Beethoven Bicentennial Collection: Symphonies 3 & 4
I imagine my dad, in his Minneapolis apartment in the early 70s, listening to Beethoven and reading the paper in his squared glasses and white turtleneck. Flash back a decade, to Karajan coaxing what Harvey Sachs called his "calculatedly voluptuous" sound from his players as he created a recording that he had every reason to think would be regarded as definitive by a generation of his peers.