Left – Warwick Fyfe, Shanul Sharma, Sian Sharp, Juan de Dios Mateos and Luke Gabbedy. Photo – Prudence Upton
Opera Australia’s Australian premiere of Il Viaggio a Reims is an undisputed crowd pleaser. Audience members were laughing, gasping, eagerly clapping after arias and generously applauding cast, director and conductor at the end. It is so rare to see such an engaged audience during a performance of any opera today, let alone historical opera.
Il Viaggio a Reims was premiered at the Théâtre Italien in Paris on 19 June 1825. It is a celebratory piece written for the coronation of King Charles X that took place ten days after the opera premiere at Notre-Dame de Reims (Reims Cathedral). Reims is north-east of Paris, and its cathedral is the traditional place for the coronation of French kings. In Luigi Balocchi’s libretto, a group of European nobles, officers and artists has gathered in the Golden Lily hotel at the spa city Plombières-les-Bains before embarking on a trip to Reims for the coronation of King Charles. The journey, however, does not eventuate as there is no transport. Instead, the celebration is to take place later in the Paris salon of the Countess together with the newly crowned king. The travelling party reconciles the situation by commencing the festivities there and then.
The libretto is based on the novel Corinne, ou L'Italie (1807) by the Mme de Staël who did not hide her anti-Napoleonic sentiments and integrated a French revolutionary zeal into her writing about an Italian poetess, Corinna, and Italy’s beauty, culture and art. Balocchi’s fable has political undertones and critiques high society and intellectuals. It presents a multifaceted European milieu that flirts and bikers instead of venerating the Bourbon king in his attempt to bring back the dignity of French monarchy one last time. This creates a parody with endless comedic elements, crafted and amplified by Rossini’s extraordinary sense of music drama.
Most of the music was forgotten soon after the premiere and was pieced together only in the 1970s by musicologists Janet Johnson and Philip Gossett. The opera has had several revivals and recordings since then. This Australian premiere of Il Viaggio a Reims is a co-production with the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam and the Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen. It is a visual extravaganza created by director Damiano Michieletto, set designer Paolo Fantin, costume designer Carla Teti, lighting Alessandro Carletti, with revival director Meisje Barbara Hummel, assistant director Constantine Costi and lighting design realised by Ludovico Gobbi.
Michieletto says that he enjoys making humour of solemn themes and that for him this is “a way to see the world”. Since the plot is about a trip, Michieletto attests that he endeavoured to create a journey for the audience that is packed with emotions. The emotions here are derived by an approach that dispenses altogether with the specifics of Luigi Balocchi’s poetry. Michieletto’s visuality integrates references to art in Mme de Staël’s novel and a painting by François Gérard. Also created for the coronation – Consecration of Charles X as king of France in the Cathedral of Reims.
In this production, the audience embarks on a journey that does not pay homage to the ill-fated King Charles X who reigned only for six years but to the genius of Rossini and to an old form of entertainment – the tableau vivant (living picture) and its erotic derivative pose plastique (living picture of naked models). The characters find themselves in a contemporary gallery where paintings come to life, and operatic characters freeze in golden frames. The interplay of moving and static bodies, ingenious stage effects, use of audience space and the never-ending sound of Rossini’s florid writing whip the spectators into jarring bewilderment at every step. It was a bit perplexing being next door to the National Gallery of Victoria.
The dominance of Michieletto’s visual approach is bold and naughty. It turns opera on its head. It does so as a bandaid for lack of spectacular voices, vocal virtuosity, understanding of Italian and acting skills. Characters sing one thing but act something different. The subtitles are redundant. The music is a vehicle to shape a new visual narrative, where the director takes centre-stage as an invisible and ever-present magician waving his wand. The singers must negotiate the two-facedness of their characters, seeking freedom in the confines of the picture frame. Whether this new approach works musically and dramatically, is a good question. There are times when the singers are upstaged by gags, and there are times when visual effects are necessary for a largely non-Italian speaking audience to be entertained during the lengthy and repetitive coloratura passages. The length of Corinna’s aria at the end while all characters arrive at their final spots in the final tableau vivant stalled the momentum and put some to sleep.
This is an opera and by that an opera with no less than seventeen soloists and a chorus. It is all about the voices – their timbre, lustre and agility. For a successful performance of Il Viaggio a Reims, casting is crucial. After all, it was premiered in 1825 with a stellar cast led by the diva of the day Giuditta Pasta in the role of Corinna. There are no visual effects that can ultimately detract from vocal deficiencies – whether lack of sound brilliance, a heavy tone that cannot handle Rossini’s florid writing, no understanding of text subtleties and how they are built into the music or attention to historically informed ornamentation. Unevenness marked the performance of this courageous cast, dressed in underwear most of the time. This included various degrees of knowledge and articulation of Italian, vocal technique, stage presence and theatrical experience.
Two singers stood out. Emma Pearson – a great comedic actress-singer – who was so funny and so eloquent not only when she was singing but also throughout the entire opera. Her vocal phrasing and tone followed the intricacies of the text with great timing. Her coloratura singing was as witty since she was able to find the comedy that Rossini wrote into the vocal pyrotechnics. Giorgio Coaduro was a captivating Don Profondo. His character was believable, and his voice rich and expressive. He delivered effectively not only the Don’s fast speech while reading a letter that resolves the situation but also the occasional Australian slang word.
Conductor Daniel Smith was most popular during the performance. Not only did he participate in the auction but he led Orchestra Victoria and the Opera Australia Chorus to the end of the trip. The concertato finale of Act 2 featuring fourteen individual lines was thrilling! During the Australian premiere of Il Viaggio a Reims, the audience participated unknowingly in an operatic journey that shapes a commemorative opera and a commemorative work of art. The occasion of commemoration was totally forgotten while the ride was most enjoyable and entertaining – a true crowd pleaser!
Opera Australia presents
Il Viaggio a Reims
Gioachino Rossini | libretto Luigi Balocchi, based in part on Corinne, ou L'Italie (1807) by Mme de Staël
Director Damiano Michieletto
Venue: State Theatre | Arts Centre Melbourne
Dates: May 28 – June 1, 2019
Tickets: $287 – $69
A co-production of the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam, Opera Australia, and Royal Danish Opera, Copenhagen