Normally each summer the current young artists give a programme of semi-staged opera scenes. This year the celebrations called for something bigger and a complete performance of Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims was given, semi-staged, in the main Covent Garden auditorium.
Rossini’s 1825 opera is very much an occasional work, despite being one of his finest compositions. It was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of Charles X in France and has a plot specific to the occasion, a group a aristocrats coming together to travel to Rheims for Charles’s coronation. Rossini did not intend the piece to have a life beyond the first performances in Paris and about half the music found its way into Le Comte d’Ory. It was premiered at the Theatre Italien with some of the greatest voices of the day and has had a modern life, thanks to the strength of Rossini’s music, since the piece’s reconstruction for the 1984 Pesaro Festival.
It is a very unlikely piece, one which would seem destined for the scrap heap of history; it needs 14 soloists, all strong Rossinians, and has plot of elemental simplicity. But Rossini rose to the challenge and showed a wide degree of skill and humour. He used his full dramatic manner to satirise the storm in a teacup that represents the work’s ‘drama’, and then displayed superb skill with the grand ensemble for the 14 soloists.
Covent Garden last performed the work in 1992, with an all-star cast in an eminently forgettable production. Few companies can afford to mount the work properly, and with its plethora of small but demanding roles would seem ideal for a large young cast. The trouble is that everyone needs to be able to perform Rossini stylishly; there is little room for error. Covent Garden assembled a cast which included all of the current Jette Parker Young Artists with a number of returning ones from previous seasons. The conductor, Daniele Rustioni, was an associate conductor of the scheme a few years ago and the concert staging was by Pedro Ribeiro who is a current young artist.
The Royal Opera Orchestra was given a night off and the ENO Orchestra played. The orchestra were placed on stage in a wood panelled acoustic shell which ensured that the sound quality in the auditorium was optimum. The singers were placed in a row in front of the orchestra, they used music and music stands but many were just about off the book and none sang with eyes glued to copy. The result was surprisingly successful and dramatically involving. All sang Rossini’s fioriture creditably, there was no embarrassing flailing about or flabby wobbling round runs. Granted a couple of the bigger voices tended to smudge their runs, but there were few real Rossini specialists here. For example, Corinna was played by Marina Poplavskaya (2005-2007 young artist) who is moving into heavier roles; she has an Elisabeth (Tannhauser) planned.
What also impressed was the discovery that a number of the returning singers, who I had only ever seen in serious roles, had a strong flair for comedy, notably Poplavskaya, Jacques Imbrailo (2006-2008 young aristst) who played Trombonk, Ailish Tynan (2002-2004 young artist) who played Madam Cortese and Matthew Rose (2003-2005) who played Lord Sidney.
Madeleine Pierard (a current Young Artist), as La Contessa di Folleville, got one of the work’s best known numbers, the countess’s large scale tragic aria bewailing the loss of her hats. Pierard did Rossini the compliment of taking the piece entirely seriously, which made it all the more hilarious as Pierard’s stylish roulades cascaded out. Rossini used his grand tragic manner in this aria. Pierard has a big dramatic voice and used it brilliantly. There were moments of harshness at the top, and her fioriture would not stand scrutiny in the recording studio, but she brought style and vibrancy to the piece.
Tynan was on superb form, clearly enjoying herself and making a lovely contribution to all the ensembles, her opening solo displayed some of the finest singing of the evening and a lovely trill. As Madama Cortese (the owner of the inn) laments her inability to get travel to Rheims, Rossini again sends up the genre with an over-elaborate aria which Tynan relished.
Imbrailo did not really get a major solo moment but as the German character he was rather ubiquitous as he seemed to be organising everything. Imbrailo did so with beautiful tone and a wry sense of amusement.
Poplavskaya looked suitably dramatic as the poetess given to rhapsodising. When participating in the main opera, especially in her long scene with Belfiore (Edgaras Montvidas, 2001-2003 Young Artist), she was in fine form. In the two rhapsodies, sung from the rear of the stage with just harp accompaniment, she seemed to be attempting to thin her voice down further than it really wanted to go so that there was some unwanted strain, which was a shame.
Montvidas seemed to be in his element as the rather greasy cavalier, his performance just nicely overdone with a fabulous duet with Poplavskaya. Rose’s Lord Sidney was also in love with Corinna and this gave Rose his long solo moment, full of compressed pomposity and repressed emotion, accompanied by a superb flute solo.
The first half concluded with Don Profondo’s catalogue arias. Lukas Jakobski (2009-2011 Young Artist) gave this a fine comic turn and proved remarkably adept at Rossini’s patter song. Later in the opera he showed himself not averse to using his height for comic purposes when he sang a duet with Tynan.
By this point, Rossini had essentially introduced all the characters. Nearly all had been given a significant display moment, in aria or duet. The interval was placed after Don Profondo’s aria (which is in fact scene 3 of Act 2). This meant that the second half opened with Rossini’s master-stroke. The one major piece of drama in the piece, the lack of horses to take the party to Rheims, brings as a response the gran pezzo concertato a classic Rossinian ensemble, but written for 14 soloists.
There followed one final duet, for the Marquise, Kai R¸¸tel (2009-2011 Young Artist) and Libenskof, Jin-Hyun Kim (current Young A|rtist). R¸¸tel has an attractively warm mezzo-soprano voice which she used intelligently and with great charm, though I don’t think that she is a natural Rossini singer. Kim displayed his fine lyric tenor with superb fluency in the fioriture and an ability to take his voice up high with apparent ease. Kim should certainly be an asset in this repertoire.
For the finale, each of the aristocrats sings a National song, which gives Rossini a chance to have fun at other people’s expense. The cast enjoyed themselves and this helped enormously in what is, I think the weakest part of the opera. I worked out that in a large international cast, only Matthew Rose (as Englishman Lord Sidney) was playing his own nationality.
The smaller roles were all well taken. Justina Gringyte (current Young Artist) was a strong Maddalena who impressed enormously in the opening ensemble, Daniel Grice (current Young Artist) was a characterful Antonio, Hanna Hipp (current Young Artist) showed a talent for expressive face pulling as the countess’s maid and Jihoon Kim (current Young Artist) was nicely pretentious with orotund voice as Don Prudenzio
Conductor Daniele Rustioni was extremely hard working. Not only is he a very active conductor, but he was assiduous in cueing singers and ensuring that the complex ensembles stayed on track. He gave the work a lively and infectious bounce and paced it nicely. In the ensembles and the gran pezzo concertato he ensure that not only did things stay on track, but that the music never sagged, ensuring forward momentum without ever seeming driven. This was a brilliant vibrant performance with surprisingly crisp edges. His podium was effectively part of the acting aria and he participated in the action as well.
Jean-Paul Pruna (current Young Artist) played the forte-piano continuo. He was also on stage, but the instrument seemed slightly under powered for my taste, though Pruna’s playing was discreet and effective.
The ENO Orchestra were on good form, giving us some superb solo playing, fine accompaniment, crisp lively playing with fine details. From the opening notes there was something infectious about their performance, perhaps they enjoyed the unfamiliar repertoire or just being in the spot-light on-stage for once, but the players seemed to enjoy themselves as much as the singers and it showed in their playing.
The standard of Rossinian singing was creditably high, particularly from non-specialist singers. All the young voices sang the Rossini with a degree of style, conveyed the humour with the music showing their enjoyment. Aided by Rustioni’s conducting and Ribeiro’s discreetly effective staging this was a sparkling evening in the theatre
product_title=Rossini : Il viaggio a Reims
19 July 2012, Royal Opera House, London