The opera that celebrates the coronation of a king!
Rossini never envisaged his 1825 opera Il viaggio a Reims, ossia L’albergo del giglio d’oro having a life beyond its initial performances, as it was written to celebrate a specific occasion, namely the coronation of King Charles X of France. While the composer regularly recycled parts of his music in other operas, the fact that he was to use about half of the music of Il viaggio three years later in Le comte Ory reveals just how much he was counting on the former never being heard again.
The opera, which has an Italian libretto by Luigi Balocchi, is based in part on Corinne ou l’Italie (1807) by Germaine de Staël, and it premiered at the Théâtre-Italien, Paris on 19 June 1825. There were only four original performances, and the manuscript was subsequently assumed lost until its different parts were rediscovered and reassembled in the 1970s by musicologist Janet Johnson, with the help of Philip Gossett.
The action is set in The Golden Lily spa hotel at Plombières-les-Bains, where a number of European aristocrats and officers are gathering en route to Reims to attend the coronation. As its proprietress Madame Cortese (a superb Lucy Hall) is determined to show the hotel at its best so that the wealthy guests might return one day, we witness among them a plethora of love triangles, attempts at wooing and instances of unrequited love. Whether they all make it to the coronation in the end or not hardly matters. With the opera closing with a Finale that unashamedly presents a series of rousing ‘tunes’, including the German and British national anthems, and an ‘improvised’ homage to the new King, the unquestionably mad but ultimately uplifting story is the subject in its own right.
Entertaining though the opera is, it is clear that when so many of the jokes were written to be relevant in the 1820s, no production today could present the piece entirely straight and expect it to work of its own accord. At the same time, however, when there are no less than 18 principal roles to begin with, going overboard with the staging could create something that felt so hyperbolic as to be unpalatable. In the face of such challenges, Valentina Ceschi’s new production for English Touring Opera delivers brilliantly by offering a staging that achieves just the right balance between exuberance and restraint.
“…Rossini never envisaged his 1825 opera… having a life beyond its initial performances…”
The stage depicting the hotel is kept relatively bare, thus allowing various props to be introduced for specific scenes that convey their essence well. Having a second level at the back with a few steps leading down to the main area allows for grand entrances, and generates a strong dynamic as, for example, the servants scuttle around at the start preparing everything for the important guests. While Ceschi could have done more in certain scenes, the choice not to do so works extremely well. For instance, the arias ‘Partir, o ciel! desio’ and ‘Che miro! Ah! Quel sorpresa!’, in which the widowed Contessa di Folleville laments losing her finest clothes before rejoicing that a bonnet has been saved, feature the type of Baroque vocal fireworks that need to be enjoyed free from too many distractions. This is because musically they are mesmerising, even when the joke is that the Contessa is this distressed over a relatively trivial issue. As a result, it is totally right to complement Luci Briginshaw’s central performance (and she really could not do it better), with some gently amusing movements such as coordinated bobbing, rather than anything more lavish.
It is only the scene between the Chevalier Belfiore (a strong voiced Richard Dowling) and poetess Corinna (an equally excellent Susanna Hurrell) where a little more might have been welcome, due to the lengthy encounter ideally requiring greater variation in terms of the staging. For the most part, however, both the direction and performances pitch things exactly right. Thus, the English Colonel Lord Sidney’s aria ‘Invan strappar dal core’ at the start of Act II, in which he yearns for Corinna, benefits from the superb Edward Hawkins playing it totally straight. It is to his credit that he does not throw his arms around in exaggerated gestures, which many performers might have thought was the obvious thing to do in a dramma giocoso.
There are a few scenes that feel more exuberant, but these also work with the tone that has been set. At the end of Act II all of the principals gather to form a horse drawn carriage with the aid of just a few props, even though there is a novel substitute for the horses that in the plot are unavailable! When the scholar Don Profondo (a highly entertaining Timothy Dawkins) runs through the inventory of all his fellow travellers, a series of suitcases are carried on that illustrate the libretto’s jokes about how each person’s possessions sum up their nation’s characteristics. Particularly effective is the backdrop that portrays fields before scrolling upwards to reveal clouds, making us feel as if we have just flown high in a hot air balloon.
Jonathan Peter Kenny’s conducting of the Old Street Band is excellent, while the set of principals, all of whom get one or more moments in the spotlight, is remarkably strong. Grant Doyle as the music lover Barone di Trombonok, Esme Bronwen-Smith as the widowed Marchesa Melibea and Julian Henao Gonzalez as the Russian general Conte di Libenskopf are just some of those who stand out in a cast in which there is not one weak link. Although the performance is in Italian, the English translation as revealed in the surtitles is intelligent enough to introduce jokes that work for us, just as the originals would have done for audiences in 1825. A query as to where certain mythical treasures might be found elicits the answer of The Wallace Collection!
Stances are taken on a few issues, so that suggestions are made that Corinna is caged because the numerous men who pursue her mean she cannot be free. Similarly, at the end she is virtually forced to perform a song, with even its subject matter being imposed upon her. On the whole though, the presentation benefits from never pushing ideas too far so that a lot of points are merely hinted at. For example, no overt references to the current King Charles III are made, but we can all appreciate the increased relevance of the opera when his coronation is just around the corner. The production also hints at the ways in which we could all currently do with its uplifting ending, with its emphasis on peace and unity across Europe. This means that Il viaggio a Reims, as mad as it undoubtedly is, still has an appeal that goes far beyond the realms of the merely entertaining.
• Il viaggio a Reims, along with English Touring Opera’s other spring 2023 productions Giulio Cesare, Lucrezia Borgia, Noah Mosley’s The Wish Gatherer and Lucie Treacher’s Zoo!, are touring England until 29 May.
• For full details of dates and venues visit the English Touring Opera website.