One particularly valuable item within the Rare Book Collection is a copy of the original 1816 libretto Le Comte Ory that recounts the escapades of a lascivious French aristocrat, Count Ory, who seeks to seduce the widowed Countess Aloise through a series of disguises and tricks, and the efforts of Countess Aloise and Ory’s own page, Isolier, to confound his schemes—going so far as to disguise himself as the countess. Le Comte Ory was later adapted into an opera with musical scores by Rossini in 1828. The theater has long been a home for gender play within the bounds of the dramatic or comedic purposes of performance. In time periods or cultures where women were not allowed on the stage, young men often assumed the roles of love interests, mothers, and maids. “Trouser roles,” which were an early-modern trend featuring female actors impersonating men, are a point of particular interest, especially within operas like Le Comte Ory where a mezzo-soprano actress might be cast in the role of a young man.
Within Le Comte Ory, the handsome young page Isolier—who secretly loves Aloise and protects her from Count Ory—is played by a woman. This remains consistent between both the libretto and opera, with the opera’s musical performances utilizing the talents of a mezzo-soprano to harmonize with the voices of other characters. When Isolier disguises himself as Aloise to protect her from being cornered by Count Ory, the queer implications become intensely layered. Effectively, the play’s climactic scenes center around a female actor performing a male character who is in love with a woman, taking on a disguise and pretending to be a woman, while the male character of Count Ory corners them, holding their hands, kissing them or even—in some modern stagings of the opera—participating in a confused but enthusiastic threesome between all three main characters.
Le Comte Ory is one of over 2,000 individual titles within the collection Two Centuries of French Drama.