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Gioachino Rossini, Il Viaggio a Reims (Kirov Opera)
28 Jan 2007

ROSSINI: Il Viaggio a Reims

Rossini’s last Italian opera, staged in 1825 as a part of Charles X’s coronation festivities, is a bizarre creation — a sassy little farce capped with a coronation cantata in the best traditions of staged court entertainment, from 16th-century Italian intermedi through their Baroque and Classic operatic progeny.

Gioachino Rossini: Il Viaggio a Reims

Kirov Opera and Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (cond.)
Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., 27 January 2007


This production, a combined effort of the Kirov Opera and Théâtre du Châtelet, was premiered in 2005, and has made its way to the Kennedy Center in Washington DC as a part of the Kirov’s residency here, now in its fifth year.

Minimal staging (sets by Pierre-Alain Bertola) strips the “Golden Lily Hotel” to its scaffolding, revealing the opera for what it truly is — a collection of sparkling vignettes with hardly a semblance of a plot; a glorious divertimento; a concert in costumes — but what fabulous costumes! Among costume designer Mireille Dessigy’s creations, not to be missed are the Contessa de Folleville’s outrageous hats and Corinna’s ancient regime version of fuzzy slippers. The Russian general’s garb complete with a sailor’s tunic and a white horse (yes, an actual — and impressively well-behaved — animal) is hilarious. As for Corinna’s entrance costume, capped with a fantastic feather turban and illuminated from within by flashing electric lights, it is beyond description, and would surely land some Hollywood star enterprising enough to steal it a place on the “worst dressed, yet most memorable” red carpet list. The “English golf dandy” outfit of Chevalier Belfiore, on the other hand, was funny but not particularly convincing.

The Kirov’s performance started well before the opera began, with the orchestra players (with their instruments) and singers (with their luggage) making their way to the “hotel” from the auditorium, greeting the audience in two languages (none of them Italian), and then negotiating stage space with the “cleaning crew,” mops and vacuums in hand. The conductor — maestro Gergiev himself — did not carry a suitcase, was relieved of his coat by one of the choristers, but would keep his hat on throughout the evening. Both the conductor and the orchestra (dressed in white and reduced almost to a chamber group for the occasion) were positioned on stage, with a harpsichordist placed on the proscenium and dressed up in full ancient regime regalia, complete with high heels and a powdered wig. Similarly dressed was a harpist wheeled onto the stage on a special platform whenever her services were required to accompany Corinna the poetess (the lovely Irma Gigolashvili); and a fabulous flutist (unfortunately not identified in the program) who performed her second act solo flawlessly, all the while engaged in a clever pantomimed “duet” with Lord Sydney (Eduard Tsanga). 

Throughout, the production (directed by Alain Maratrat) was filled with stage business — always energetic, often clever, and occasionally detrimental to sound production: for instance, practically nothing performed on the back section of the scaffolding (behind the orchestra) made it into the hall. On the other hand, plenty of singing (and some very funny acting) occurred in the orchestra — among the orchestra seats, that is. This clearly delighted the audience but presented a significant challenge to ensemble performance — a challenge that the young troupe, to their credit, met and triumphed over, even in the lightning-fast stretti. Overall, the vocal performance of the young cast, including some tremendously difficult passagework, was almost uniformly superior: Anastasia Kalagina as Madame Cortese impressed with the precision of her coloratura; Larisa Yudina as the Contessa proved herself a comic talent, yet was ever ready with those breathtaking E-flats. Dmitry Voropaev as Belfiore, Daniil Shtoda as Count di Libenskoff, Vladislav Uspensky as Baron di Trombonoc, and particularly Nikolay Kamensky as basso buffo Don Profondo were all excellent. Anna Kiknadze as Melibea was less impressive, but she did occasionally enjoy her moments of glory (unfortunately, the final polonaise was not one of those moments). Only Alexey Safiulin as Don Alvaro was truly disappointing: he did well in the ensembles, but the solos — including the gorgeous “fake flamenco” song Rossini had smuggled into the grand finale — were almost entirely lost. The chorus — members of the Mariinsky Academy of Young Singers — acted lustily and sang well; the orchestra sound was clean, crisp, and tastefully “classic” — in fact, barely recognizable as coming from an orchestra better known for the sweeping romantic sound of its Tchaikovsky and Wagner productions.

Grand drama devotees might find Il Viaggio a Reims annoyingly fluffy. Opera purists could object to the coloratura occasionally getting lost in the stage business or covered with the audience’s laughter. Yet, to those who think of opera as primarily a theatrical spectacle, the Kirov production proves deliciously watchable. It is just what King Charles X of France had ordered from his favorite composer — a splendid and frivolous piece of entertainment for a very special occasion.

Olga Haldey

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