ROSSINI: Il Viaggio a Reims

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

image_description=Gioachino Rossini, Il Viaggio a Reims (Kirov Opera)
product_title=Gioachino Rossini: Il Viaggio a Reims
product_by=Kirov Opera and Orchestra, Valery Gergiev (cond.)
Kennedy Center, Washington, D.C., 27 January 2007