Delightfully daffy and sumptuously sung, Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims is the equivalent of a rich operatic dessert: featherlight layers of delectable pleasure with many a sweet hidden treat.
It seems there was a time when local opera goers would have viewed Rossini’s cherished classic The Barber of Seville as basically his only work. Recent presentations of ll Signor Bruschino, William Tell and the Australian premiere of Otello have prepared Melbourne audiences perfectly for Il Viaggio a Reims.
This Australian premiere season is a co-production between Opera Australia, the Dutch National Opera and Danish National Opera, directed by ingenious Italian director Damiano Michieletto. Having written Il Viaggio a Reims specifically to celebrate the 1825 coronation of French King Charles X at Reims, Rossini never intended theopera to be staged again. International music detective work finally returned the supremely challenging piece to the stage in 1984.
Michieletto’s visionary twist on the plot sees the characters en route to Reims as figures in an art work being transported to a gallery. In an expertly realised piece of synaesthesia, Michieletto creatively blends operatic arts with fine arts, spectacularly bringing famous paintings to life on the stage. The all too slender plot is inventively bolstered by a series of wonderfully silly stunts and set pieces, providing abundant laughs along the way.
Highlights in acts one and two include a parade of famous figures from paintings, an earnest auction of artworks, body painting, costume swapping and more. With the comic action appearing to have reached its zenith before interval, Michieletto makes a well-judged shift of gears in the third act, slowing the laughs and beginning with a wonderful scene in which a pair of gallery visitors mirror the romantic imbroglios of a pair of painted characters.
The masterstroke of the entire concept is the lavish recreation of François Gérard’s painting of The Coronation of Charles X at Reims. While Corinna sings the extended final aria, the performers show terrific discipline by moving at glacial pace to magically create the painting on stage. The result is a visual triumph that brings the highly enjoyable evening to a stirring conclusion.
Michieletto is blessed with equally talented colleagues in bringing the vision to life, with costume designer Carla Teti and set designer Paolo Fantin delivering eye-popping work.
Stage spectacle aside, Il Viaggio a Reims is a lavish musical feast that requires an extraordinary line up of 17 principal singers. Predominantly utilising local artists, Opera Australia has assembled a dreamy ensemble cast whose pristine singing is enhanced by their well-honed comic skills.
In addition to being the Australian premiere performance of Il Viaggio a Reims, opening night represented the Australian debut ofAustralian conductor Daniel Smith. With significant experience in Europe, Smith returns as a young conductor of great renown. Proving a good sport, Smith even joined in with the comic action at one point. Smith’s ebullient enthusiasm brought a lively performance of the score from Orchestra Victoria. The loveliest of featured work was heard from Lisa-Maree Amos on flute and Megan Reeve on harp.
A smattering of international artists joins the bevy of local singers in the cast. Spanish soprano Ruth Iniesta dazzles as gallery visitor Corinna, a young woman with a sketchpad who is fascinated by the painted figures. Iniesta’s performance of Corinna’s final “improvised” aria brought worthy acclaim on opening night.
Spanish tenor Juan de Dios Mateos shines as Cavalier Belfiore, a young swordsman who woos Corinna in the extended duet “Nel suo divin sembiante,” even swapping clothes with a nearby young man to try to escape with her.
Always a welcome guest artist, Italian baritone Giorgio Caoduro exhibits comic sparkle when Don Profondo’s rapid patter serves him well as the auctioneer.
Charming act three duet “D’alma celeste, oh Dio!” is beautifully sung and performed by Sian Sharp and Shanul Sharma (trying saying those names five times fast). Sharp projects a vividly sensual character as Marchesa Melibea. In his most significant Opera Australia role to date, Sharma sings with the perfect light Rossini crispness, and makes a suitably sultry leading man.
Warwick Fyfe makes a very welcome local appearance as the amusingly frazzled Barone di Trombonok, a figure who takes on the key role as the bishop in the recreation of Gérard’s painting.
Julie Lea Goodwin proves her versatility, switching from playing a sixteen-year-old girl to a vain gallery owner in an asymmetric Anna Wintour-like bob and sunglasses. Teddy Tahu Rhodes takes his shirt off again, this time to be suggestively smeared in blue body paint. Esteemed veteran Conal Coad brings a touch of class as gallery administrator Don Prudenzio.
For lovers of art and the arts alike, Il Viaggio a Reims is must-see entertainment.
Il Viaggio a Reims plays select dates at State Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne until 1 June 2019.
Solo opera goers can enjoy Il Viaggio a Reims with like-minded arts lovers on 30 May 2019 as part of Opera Australia’s new Opera for One program.
Photos: #1, #3, #4 Jeff Busby; #2, #5, #6 Prudence Upton