Composed in 1825 for the coronation of King Charles X of France, it has taken nearly two centuries for Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims (The Journey to Reims) to be staged in Australia. It was only in 1983, after American musicologists Philip Gossett and Janet Johnson had painstakingly reconstructed the lost manuscript from fragments tracked down across Europe, that the opera’s revival in 1984 became possible. Since then, it has become a popular vehicle for showcasing operatic talent. And now it is our turn thanks to Opera Australia’s cooperation with Dutch National Opera and Royal Danish Opera.
Virtuoso singing, visual splendor, delightfully inventive direction by Damiano Michieletto and an equally inventive melodious score are the main ingredients of this co-production. They go a very long way to compensate for any lack of coherent plot, which was sometimes made even more confusing by transferring the action from the original Golden Lily hotel, teeming with travellers and staff to an art gallery, where the line between characters and art works becomes so blurred as to be almost Dadaesque.
During the interval, one gentleman cheerfully (and loudly) asked a fellow member of the audience whether he knew what was going on. Those surrounding him seemed to be in a similar state of bemusement but also not really concerned because they were all having such an entertaining time. When most of the main characters were handed coat hangers with large name boards after interval, it appeared to be a witty acknowledgment that many in the audience needed a little help to remember just who was who.
An extensive cast of characters rivaling Game of Thrones represents the attributes of various European nations, which culminates in each presenting a short solo reflecting national characteristics – from God Save the King to the German Kaiser equivalent – for the coronation scene. The art works that form part of Paolo Fantin’s set design also provide a clever cultural cross-section of visual art, including mobile works by Van Gogh, Goya, Velasquez, Haring, Picasso, Magritte, John Singer Sargeant and Frieda Kahlo. The dance component is created via a sculpture of The Three Graces, charmingly brought to life by a comely trio of dancers clothed in little more than white paint.
With 14 leading roles plus 3 secondary ones it is impossible to do justice to the work of all members of such an ensemble cast in a review. Unfortunately, due to being stricken with laryngitis, Lorina Gore was unable to sing the taxing principal soprano role of Corinna the poetess (created by diva of the day Giuditta Pasta) as advertised; the good news was that Spanish soprano Ruth Iniesta, who had already sung the role in Vienna, was available. We were introduced to her alluring singing in the off-stage aria about the importance of peace and brotherly love to graceful harp accompaniment. A lovely voice and charming presence made her an audience favourite. The other singer who, yet again, was greeted by an enthusiastic reception was Warwick Fyfe. Among a cavalcade of fine singers his Barone di Trombonok was rich-voiced and commanding.
Julie Lea Goodwin provided dramatic impetus in Act 1 and added a lovely clear soprano line to the ensembles throughout the opera. But it was Australian soprano Emma Pearson’s brilliant Contessa di Folleville that raised the evening’s performance to even greater heights – in several respects. She sang the challenging florid aria with ease, and her reactions to her loss of luggage and eventual reunion with her shoes was comedy gold; it was “bel canto” at its exciting best as she revelled in the vocal fireworks.
Notable performances also came from Spanish tenor Juan de Dios Mateos as the passionate young Chevalier Belfiore and baritone Giorgio Caoduro as the Italian antiquarian Don Profondo. Caoduro was vocally and dramatically assured, negotiating the “catalogue aria” with panache as bidders in the auditorium aisles eager to secure the art works being auctioned off added to the excitement. Teddy Tahu Rhodes gave his role of painter Lord Sidney resonant bass notes and some nice comic touches as he immersed himself voluptuously in the painting he was restoring – once again removing his shirt!
Although Shanul Sharma had some trouble with cutting through larger ensembles, especially when singing from a reclining position in a “tableau vivant”, his vocal agility and extraordinary stratospheric upper register were valuable assets to his portrayal of Count Libenskof, a Russian general and rival for the hand of the Polish Marquise Melbea, sung with warm full tone by a lively Sian Sharp.
A momentary rhythmic faltering during the final ensemble as the scrim curtain descended for the climactic visual “coup de théâtre” was quickly remedied by the always attentive and dynamic conductor, Daniel Smith. He elicited fine playing from Orchestra Victoria as a whole, but made special acknowledgement of the excellent contribution of the solo flute and harp during the curtain call.
If David McVicar’s production of Così fan tutte left you with an unsavoury aftertaste, then Michieletto’s production of the work that established Rossini’s name in Paris is the perfect palate cleanser. This exceptional production is not to be missed – not just by opera lovers, but also by anybody with an interest in theatre and the arts in general.
Heather Leviston reviewed Opera Australia’s production of “Il Viaggio a Reims” at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on May 24, 2019. Further performances are scheduled for May 28 and 30, and June 1 (matinee).