Chicago Opera Theater

at the Athenaeum

Chicago Opera Theater’s financial troubles nearly killed the company last year. But loyal subscribers and contributors saved the day, and during the course of the year a million dollars was raised, enough for the company to survive and even pay down some of its accumulated debt. Perhaps this cash transfusion should have inspired the company to choose Marschner’s Der Vampyr as this season’s opener. Instead, it chose a deservedly obscure piece of Rossiniana, Count Ory, a nod to the bicentennial of the composer’s birth.

Count Ory, which premiered on August 20, 1828, is Rossini’s only comic French opera and his next to last work for the stage (William Tell was his last). As is almost invariably the case with Rossini, Count Ory involves copious plagiarism, usually from himself. In this case the recycling involved principally his comic Italian work Il Viaggio a Reims, which premiered in 1825, from which the overture was stolen. A bit was also lifted from Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony for the second act. After its premiere, Count Ory successfully made its way into the French repertory in the mid-19th century (due to the insatiable French demand for ballet, it was often on a double bill with Giselle).

The libretto was written by Eugene Scribe and Charles Gaspard Delestre-Poirson, developed from an earlier vaudeville show based on the legend of the medieval seducer Comte Ory. The final product did not please Scribe, and he later asked to have his name removed.

The story line of Count Ory is thin enough. The rakish Ory is intent upon the conquest of the Countess Adele of Formoutiers but is impeded by the virtue of the countess and the vigilance of his own tutor, who was charged with improving his morals by the young man’s father. The men of the castle of Formoutiers are on a Crusade, and the married ladies of the castle remain devoted to their husbands. The countess, who is not married, has sworn not to entertain suitors till the return of the crusaders. Having temporarily escaped the supervision of his tutor with the aid of his companion Raimbaud, the count disguises himself as a pious hermit who possesses the ability to divine fortunes, and finds himself the unlikely confidant of his page, Isolier. The page is also smitten with Adele, and asks the advice of the disguised count. Annoyed to find himself in competition with his page, the count manages to ingratiate himself with Adele and warn her that Isolier should not be trusted. His plans come to naught when he’s unmasked by his tutor. In the second act the count adopts Isolier’s earlier plan, and he and his retainers masquerade as holy women. His machinations are again thwarted when Isolier appears and reveals his identity. Then the menfolk return, the count retreats in confusion, and Isolier becomes the chosen suitor of the countess.

This plot line doesn’t have nearly as many opportunities for fun as any individual scene from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. This was noticed by Italian audiences of the last century, and Count Ory was never much of a success in their country. The musical writing also seems a little bit jaded and not terribly inventive or memorable when compared to Rossini’s better-known works. It’s short, but not short enough.

That said, COT nonetheless manages to have a good deal of fun with the little work. Though the castle walls in the first act are a bit amateurish, the sets by Jeff Bauer have a playful medieval feel. A little bit of 18th-century deus ex machina-style cloud movement swinging in to obscure the sun (an image borrowed from medieval tapestries) is thrown in at strategic points in the show, along with some contemporary jokes, such as the “Welcome Home Troops” banner complete with yellow ribbons. The direction by David Gately has a cute and frenetic flavor, even if it goes a little too far in the inevitable Rossini thunderstorm sequence.

Mark Calkins’s boyish tenor was a good choice for the bad-boy count, and his quick-witted and unobtrusive whisking away of a disintegrating piece of stage furniture showed that all tenors are not as stupid as legend would have it. Countess Adele was acceptably sung by Connie Dykstra, whose coloratura technique was adequate, though her voice has a buzzy quality that’s not always pleasant. Still, her attractive appearance was extremely well suited to the female lead. Carl Glaum obviously has a good deal of fun with the character of Raimbaud, especially when he conjures a case of wine for the count’s thirsty retinue, and Kurt Link’s bibulous tutor had some nice moments, especially in the first act. But soprano Lesley Goodman’s voice was too thin for Isolier, and she’s a little too short to be reasonably paired off with the statuesque Dykstra. Karen Brunssen gave a decent accounting of the ample character of Ragonde, while the peasant girl Alice was shrilly sung by Marilyn Pierce.

The chorus was a little larger than COT’s usual, and its numbers were well prepared by Martha Bein. The orchestra gave a clear and faultless rendition of Rossini’s score under the direction of Pier Giorgio Calabria.