Opera Southwest Artistic Director Anthony Barrese; center, Sean Anderson in the title role in William Tell (2017); top right, Lindsey Ohse as Amenaide in Tancredi (2016); bottom right, Angela Mortellaro (Donna Fiorilla), Matthew Burns (center, Don Geronio), and Michael Samuel (Selim, the Turk) in The Turk in Italy (2016)
The Metropolitan Opera has been around 92 years longer than Opera Southwest and its budget is 350 times larger, but on Sunday, Feb. 5, the Albuquerque company will surpass it, in at least one area, when it will have staged more operas by Gioachino Rossini than any other American company. The upcoming production of his masterful comedy Count Ory will be Opera Southwest’s 11th work by the composer, a track record that includes such rarely staged titles as Otello (performed in 2012), The Turk in Italy (2016), Marriage by Promissory Note (2019), and The Silken Ladder (2021).
Credit for the Rossini record breaking goes to Artistic Director Anthony Barrese. He saw his first opera, Carlisle Floyd’s Wuthering Heights, as a teenager, and it didn’t impress him, but a week later, a Barber of Seville at the New England Conservatory of Music “just hit me like a bolt of lightning.” Barrese’s podium debut was with Puccini’s La Bohème in Milan; he subsequently served as a frequent guest conductor with the Dallas Opera, Sarasota Opera, and Florida Grand Opera, among other companies.
After joining Opera Southwest in 2009, he conducted very successful productions of Cinderella, The Italian Girl in Algiers, and The Barber of Seville over a three-year period, then started exploring the less-familiar operas. During that time, Barrese recalled a board member saying to him, “Well, now we’re doing all this Rossini. What if we become known as ‘that Rossini company?’” He replied, “We’re not known for anything now. There are much worse things to be known for than being a Rossini company.”
Today Rossini could be considered a pioneer in The Great Resignation movement. He wrote Count Ory, his last comedy, at age 36 and William Tell, a heroic drama and his last opera of any type, at 37, then lived for almost 40 more years. Fortunately for the music world, both masterpieces reflect the French styles the composer adopted after he moved to Paris in 1824.
Barrese likens Count Ory to a perfect hybrid. “There’s such a juxtaposition of sophisticated music with these really beautiful, velvety French textures and the absolute lunacy and silliness of the dramatic situation. It’s like what would happen if Maurice Ravel and Groucho Marx got together to write an opera.”
Rossini often recycled overtures and arias from earlier, unsuccessful operas, but with Count Ory, he outdid himself in the adaptive re-use department, as did his librettists Eugène Scribe and Charles-Gaspard Delestre-Poirson. They expanded their little 1817 one-act vaudeville of the same name into a full-length, two-act text by writing a completely new first act and adapting the second to fit Rossini’s operatic structures.
For his part, the composer lifted about half the Count Ory music from his Il Viaggio a Reims (The Journey to Reims), written to celebrate the coronation of France’s King Charles X in Reims. It’s a piece of meta-opera in which characters journeying to Reims for Charles’ coronation get stuck in a hotel along the way and miss the event.
Rossini’s brilliant music ensured Il Viaggio’s success at the 1825 coronation, but its specific subject matter ensured that it went unperformed afterwards. Rossini knew there was no likelihood it would be staged again, so most of Count Ory’s first act and two numbers in the second came from the earlier score. The result was an enormous success, with more than 500 performances at the Paris Opera alone during the next few decades.
The title character is a Don Giovanni type whose attempted seduction of Countess Adele goes hilariously off target. In the original, Adele and her female consort are cloistered inside a castle, waiting for their men to return from the Crusades. Ory first attempts to breach the castle and Adele’s virtue by disguising himself as a hermit but is unmasked, on the brink of success, by his own tutor.
He and his fellow knights return disguised as nuns on a pilgrimage during the second act. The “nuns” discover the castle’s liquor storehouse almost immediately, alternating liquor-fueled carousing with phony piety whenever a woman appears. Isolier (Ory’s pants-role page) has also fallen in love with Adele and lays a clever trap for her and his master.
The three of them actually end up in bed together, a scene which Rossini expert Philip Gossett has described as “a tenor disguised as a woman who thinks he’s making love to a soprano, when in fact he’s making love to a contralto in the role of a man who takes the place of the soprano.” Trumpets suddenly announce the return of the Crusaders, and Ory flees with his fellow nuns.
Opera soprano-turned-stage director Kristen Barrett has a head start on the production, having sung Adele as a voice student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. “It was just buckets of fun,” says Barrett. “It was directed by this wonderful woman, Willene Gunn, who just passed away this year, so there will be a few little nods to her staging.”
The overall production concept comes from Barrett’s visit to a dusty attic while working at Opera Saratoga in upstate New York about 10 years ago. “There was all this antique workout equipment, like an old rowing machine you would have seen on the deck of the Titanic and the sauna box you sat in with your head sticking out,” she says.
Opera Southwest casts Count Ory as a con man connected to the health-fad hucksters of the early 20th century such as John Harvey Kellogg. “What a great time period, full of charlatanism and credulity,” she says, “when people got taken in by all these ridiculous ideas.”
The company’s production will include lots of old-time calisthenics with equipment like Indian clubs, with costumes reflecting a time when workout gear was in a primitive stage of development, as well as vigorous slapstick comedy. “The challenge is going to be getting the energetic slapstick we want,” she says, “while still allowing the singers to pace themselves. I’m glad I’ve had the experience of singing it, which can inform the staging.”
Tenor Christopher Bozeka takes on the title role. His credits include Tamino in The Magic Flute with Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Adolfo Pirelli in Sweeney Todd with Wolf Trap Opera and Atlanta Opera, and Nadir in Opera Southwest’s Ali Baba. Isolier will be played by mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider, whose opera credits include the title roles in Rossini’s Cinderella and Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. She’s also a frequent performer with the Baroque music group Seraphic Fire.
Countess Adèle is played by Lindsay Ohse, a soprano whose Metropolitan Opera credits include roles in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten, Massenet’s Cinderella, and a just-concluded run as Papagena in The Magic Flute. She’s also performed the title role in Bellini’s Norma and Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni with Opera Southwest.
“It’s going to be an interesting challenge to make these characters so real,” Ohse says, “because the story is just so over the top. That’s always fun for an audience, but truly good comedy comes from a place of realism.” She thinks that Adèle, much like Fiordiligi in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, is a woman who really likes to follow the rules and to show everybody else that she knows what the rules are. At the same time, there’s a dramatic tension created by her attraction to Ory, despite his zany disguises, and by Isolier’s interest in her.
For Ohse and her colleagues in the cast, it won’t be just a question of learning the score and participating in staging rehearsals. Barrese wants them to bring an improvisatory approach to the music that was standard practice in Rossini’s time, but not today. In fact, he’ll be disappointed if it’s sung the same way twice.
“My approach to Rossini isn’t just me writing different vocal ornaments in advance,” says Barrese. “I also want things to be improvised in the moment and to change from performance to performance.”
Rossini would approve. During his long retirement from writing operas, he still wrote opera music, specifically ornamentations and variations on his own arias for various singers to use, and attended rehearsals of his operas, suggesting on-the-spot changes for the cast members.
Asked if there will be more Rossini after Count Ory, Barrese laughs and says, “Well, I certainly don’t want to do all 38 of them! But I do think there are more that are worth doing, maybe seven or eight for sure.”
He may even apply the kind of flexibility he wants from his singers to the titles themselves, another common 19th-century practice followed to increase ticket sales. “You know, Rigoletto might have been called something different in Palermo than it was in Rome. It’s just like film titles today, which are often different in different countries.”
Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt) is definitely on the Rossini/Barrese bucket list. “It’s something I really, really want to do,” he said. “We’re thinking about calling it The Ten Commandments, though. It even ends with the parting of the Red Sea!”