Counting on Count Ory

Count Ory disguised as a nun, in the women’s bedroom; courtesy Des Moines Metro Opera

For opera fans, one of the few upsides to the current circumstances is the opportunity to view unusual operas from enterprising companies near and far, such as Rossini’s Count Ory from the Des Moines Metro Opera.

Rossini may seem to us the most Italianate of all composers, but he spent many years living in Paris and wrote (or re-wrote) five operas which premiered there between 1825 and 1829. Two of them, The Siege of Corinth and Moses and Pharaoh, were revisions of earlier Italian operas. One, The Journey to Reims, was a new piece in Italian composed to celebrate the coronation of King Charles X in Reims. His final two operas, both in French, were the comic masterpiece Count Ory and the world’s first grand opera, William Tell.

The real-life Count Ory was a Don Juan whose romantic exploits were celebrated in an 18th-century ballad and a 19th-century one-act play. Rossini had the play’s two authors expand it into a full-length opera libretto. Ever alert for a musical recycling opportunity, the composer then adapted much of music in his new opera from The Journey to Reims.

Rossini knew that future performances of an opera written specifically for a royal coronation would be few and far between; a new king would demand a new opera. The result was one of the wittiest and most sophisticated comic operas ever written. The eminent music critic Peter Heyworth cited its “unique quality of exhilarating high spirits, unrivaled even by Donizetti, Offenbach, Sullivan, or Johann Strauss.”

Count Ory is rarely staged (its only prior appearance here was in the 1978 SFO season). So, Santa Feans should relish the opportunity to enjoy a first-rate presentation of it, sung in French, from the Des Moines Metro Opera. It’s available at Iowa PBS (iowapbs.org) and via the Des Moines Metro Opera (desmoinesmetroopera.org/productions/lecomteory/) at 1 p.m. Sunday, July 19. There’s also a pre-opera talk at 12:15 p.m., available only on YouTube.

The Iowa company’s 2014 staging received rave reviews from regional and national critics, with Opera News saying, “Rossini’s Count Ory sparkled on July 5. Taylor Stayton’s sunny, stratospheric tenor is ideally suited to Rossini, and he made a pyrotechnical feast of the title role. Rising young soprano Sydney Mancasola matched Stayton roulade for roulade as Countess Adele. ... The extended trio in Adele’s boudoir was an extraordinary stretch of bravura singing and precisely calibrated physical comedy.”

Opera Today concurred, writing, “If you don’t have the means to get to the Rossini festival in Pesaro [Italy], you would do just as well to come to Indianola, Iowa, where the Des Moines Metro Opera summer festival has devised a heady production of Count Ory that is as long on belly laughs as it is on musical fireworks.”

The Des Moines Metro Opera partnership with Iowa PBS began in 1979 with Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and has continued with increasing frequency. As a result, DMMO was able to quickly organize a “2020 Virtual Festival” featuring productions of Turandot, Manon, Rusalka, Don Pasquale, Billy Budd, Flight, Bon Appétit!, and Eugene Onegin, as well as Count Ory. All of the productions are supported by a handsome 96-page program book available in virtual and print editions.

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