Il viaggio a Reims – Opera in three Acts [sic] to a libretto by Luigi Balocchi partly based on Germain de Staël’s Corinne ou l’Italie [sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Madame Cortese – Lucy Hall
Contessa di Folleville – Luci Briginshaw
Corinna – Susanna Hurrell
Marchesa Melibea – Esme Bronwen-Smith
Conte di Libenskopf – Julian Henao Gonzalez
Chevalier Belfiore – Richard Dowling
Lord Sidney – Edward Hawkins
Barone di Trombonok – Grant Doyle
Don Prudenzio – Jerome Knox
Don Profondo – Timothy Dawkins
Don Alvaro – Jean-Kristof Bouton
Don Luigino – Matthew McKinney
Modestina – Lilo Evans
Maddalena – Hollie-anne Bangham
Antonio – Edward Jowle
Zefirino – Brenton Spiteri
Gelsomino – Peter Edge
Delia – Eleanor Sanderson-Nash
Old Street Band
Jonathan Peter Kenny
Valentina Ceschi – Director
Adam Wiltshire – Designer
Ric Mountjoy – Lighting
Ana Beatriz Meireles – Movement director
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 4 March, 2023
Venue: Hackney Empire, London
With the coronation of Charles III to come later this year, it is apt that English Touring Opera’s spring season pre-empts that with this rare production of Rossini’s occasional but sparkling and rewarding work, Il viaggio a Reims, composed for the celebrations on the crowning of the French king, Charles X in 1825. (Time was when coronations were marked with such commissions from the finest composers of the day, such as La clemenza di Tito from Mozart, or even Gloriana from Britten. This year’s ceremony and the ensuing ‘Coronation Concert’ look set to be very slender and occasional indeed, by comparison.)
The plot is essentially picaresque insofar as it presents a series of amusing episodes among the group of distinguished guests at the Golden Lily inn, preparing for the last stage of their journey to Rheims for the coronation, but who are beset by various problems, rivalries, jealousies, or squabbles. Musically and structurally this dramma giocoso (described in the manuscript as a cantata scenica) draws upon the eighteenth-century traditions of opera seria (as befits a work in honour of a monarch, with what amounts to a concluding licenza or act of praise) as well as opera buffa, whilst also satirising them in the score itself – especially the deliberately ridiculous flights of coloratura given to the Contessa di Folleville as she bewails her missing hat. Valentina Ceschi’s production and Adam Wiltshire’s designs poke fun at the vanities of the assembled coronation guests by drawing upon an almost contemporary caricature upon the latest sartorial fashions by Isaac Robert Cruikshank called Monstrosities of 1827, to create an ambience that reflects the time of composition. The collection of outlandish costumes is put on full display, like a fashion catwalk, as the guests come on in succession for the final scene, for a sequence of tributes to the King in various national styles – both the German and English anthems are sung for example. Ceschi also qualifies a work that otherwise seems like a piece of political grovelling, by having a protester near its end paste a banner with ‘liberté’ across the depiction of Charles X’s face, reminding us that not everybody in France welcomed the restoration of the monarchy, and that opposition to this increasingly reactionary and oppressive regime led to this king’s abdication after the 1830 Revolution. The incursions on liberty during his reign would also seem to explain the enigmatic entrance of the poet, Corinna, into an imprisoning cage at the conclusion, however appealingly decorated it is with parrots and plants.
Comprising a sprawling pattern of numbers like an opera seria in form (mainly arias, but some ensembles and choruses too) the opera has its longueurs, which the production and its choreography don’t entirely dispel, notwithstanding some colourful scenery. But this performance does revert to the practice which sometimes obtained in Rossini’s day, that the recitatives are accompanied not by keyboard, but by cello and double bass. That has the useful effect of shading the transitions from aria to recitative and back aria more seamlessly by melding together the prevailing string sonority of the orchestration, rather than highlighting the recitatives joltingly with the appearance of a percussive keyboard timbre. Furthermore, the two string parts for the recitatives colour their accompaniments to suit the dramatic import of what is being sung, and almost become voices themselves.
If the arias sometimes seem long, Old Street Band and Jonathan Peter Kenny sustain a palpably Rossinian energy, ensuring that the music itself never drags. In a comparatively small house as Hackney Empire, the period instruments of this ensemble don’t sound thin but produce a briskly animated dialogue with the voices. Above all, the handful of dynamic ensembles culminates in the most spectacular section of the work (and one of Rossini’s finest achievements), the gran pezzo concertato a 14 voci, where the bulk of the cast are told to their horror that there are no horses available to take them to Rheims for the coronation, in a satire upon the ensemble scenes of confusion that usually bring to a close the first half of an opera buffa. After a trademark Rossini crescendo – delivered here with confident bravado – tension is quickly allayed as Madame Cortese suggests that they proceed the next day directly to Paris for the festivities but will have a banquet at the inn that evening.
Despite that grand set-piece, and one of the largest casts of any opera, this work is very much a vehicle for soloists rather than a collaborative ensemble of vocalists, as it was composed with some of the greatest singers of the day in mind, for whom Rossini was expected to write music to enable them to demonstrate their abilities, hence the sequence of scenes in its first part, spotlighting many of them. The singers assembled here are all at least more than serviceable and offer a recognisably varied range of vocal expressions to delineate their characters musically. A complete resumé would be tedious, but the following should be singled out: Lucy Briginshaw steals the show for her exuberant handling of Contessa di Folleville’s capricious vocal roulades, while Susanna Hurrell serenely sustains a silvery line in the music for Corinna, two of whose arias are accompanied by harp. If Lucy Hall presents a feisty, though touch squally, Madame Cortese, Esme Bronwen-Smith is a more stately, idiomatic Polish widow as Marchesa Melibea.
Among the men, Richard Dowling projects a handsomely suave account of the raffish Chevalier Belfiore, who tries to woo Corinna, despite having come to the inn with the Contessa. Julian Henao Gonzalez has the fluidity of voice to achieve the florid lines and frequent high notes given to the excitable Conte di Libenskopf, and Grant Doyle conveys enthusiastically the eccentric character of the German Barone di Trombonok. Edward Hawkins is somewhat dry in tone as Lord Sidney, but as the emotionally reticent Englishman who cannot quite tell Corinna of his feelings for her that seems appropriate, rather than a fully ardent bel canto tenor. Instead, the long, unbridled flute solo which introduces his aria – attractively delivered here – expresses his elated mood for him. This first opera which Rossini wrote for Paris is a very particular type of work, whose drama is somewhat stilted, but it has much engaging music and ETO offer a lively interpretation and a welcome chance to see this rarity.
Further performances to May 27 at various venues around England