Rossini – Il viaggio a Reims

La Monnaie, Brussels, Sunday October 30 2005

Conductor: Rani Calderon. Production: Luca Ronconi. Corinna: Carmela Remigio. La Marchesa Melibea: Daniela Pini. La Contessa di Folleville: Désirée Rancatore. Madama Cortese: Alexandrina Pendatchanska. Il Cavaliere Belfiore: Riccardo Botta. Il Conte di Libenskof: Lawrence Brownlee. Lord Sydney: Michele Pertusi. Don Profondo: Giovanni Furlanetto. Il Barone di Trombonok: Bruno Praticò. Don Alvaro: Riccardo Novaro. Don Prudenzio: Shadi Torbey. Don Luigino: Marc Coulon. Delia: Rosa Brandao. Maddalena: Isabelle Everarts de Velp. Modestina: Beata Morawska. Zefirino: John Manning. Gelsomino: Tie Min Wang. Antonio: Pierre Doyen. Orchestra and Chorus of La Monnaie. Theater De Spiegel.

According to La Monnaie’s web site (my translation): “Despite its unusual structure - a single act with nine major numbers – Rossini’s last Italian opera is certainly one of the most brilliant, an apotheosis of all the kaleidoscopic facets of his genius.”

As this was a royal command piece (as part of the celebrations surrounding the coronation of France’s Charles X) Rossini was able to call on a dozen or so of the best singers of his day, and instead of an opera as such (the plot is thin) composed something akin to a revue, a series of elaborate, virtuoso, bel canto set-pieces for up to 14 soloists at a time that together constitute a “torrent” of tunes. (I can think of few other works that give quite the same impression of melodic genius in full, uninterrupted flow: Giulio Cesare perhaps; Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet; Strauss’s Daphne…)

Many here will remember that for the “disinterment” of the work 20 years ago, Abbado and Ronconi brought together a cast of stars including Katia Ricciarelli (or Montserrat Caballé in the Vienna reprise), Cecilia Gasdia, Lelle Cuberli, Lucia Valentini-Terrani, Araiza, Raimondi, Ramey… leading to the brilliant DG recording. For obvious reasons, that kind of killed anyone’s desire to stage it again for some time and it became an opera pretty rara. But performances started eventually to appear until this year, suddenly, everybody’s doing it: New York, Bern, Monte Carlo, Brussels, Paris… and never having had a chance to see it before, I find myself with two different productions in the 2005-2006 season.

Rather unexpectedly, La Monnaie decided to revive Ronconi’s “original” staging, a tough decision for the young singers involved as naturally it invites direct comparison with their illustrious forbears, whose costumes, wigs, make-up and gestures are reproduced in detail, giving the odd impression that the present cast are “impersonating” their elders.

Ronconi’s production hasn’t, as the French say “taken a wrinkle.” The action takes place on a white, steeply stepped set extending to a catwalk around the orchestra pit, with three flights of stairs to the rear platform. Behind the platform is a large painted backdrop of an indoor swimming pool. There are large video screens to each side, sometimes also a larger one in the middle, replacing the backdrop, and sometimes nothing at all when screen or backdrop makes way for a “surprise”, such as the Contessa’s horse and carriage flipping over in full view.

There are some deliberate anachronisms: when the cast of international “celebrities” arrive at the Lys d’Or in splendid period costumes and draped in their national flags, they are greeted by modern TV crews and cameramen, and the chorus (sometimes seated in stage-side boxes, sometimes joining in the action) wear modern, choral black.

Bathtubs on casters feature prominently: they are used to wheel the characters around, and split in two to make curvaceous white armchairs.

As the action moves forward on stage, videos show Charles X and his retinue at various stages in a procession through Brussels – city hall, a church, the streets, etc. At the end of the opera, the procession burst into the auditorium, and Charles and two pages take their places on stage at the banqueting table for the big finale.

The ballet is performed by life-size marionettes in a puppet theatre suspended overhead. The action is lively, well-rehearsed and funny throughout, but without the stupid, slapstick gags some directors might be tempted to bring in.

The Brussels cast mixed one or two famous names with a number of rising hopefuls, and it wasn’t necessarily the best-known who came out on top. This was a strong, team production, but a few points are perhaps worth mentioning (without making odious comparisons with the DG recording, however much it may have been in one’s mind on the day).

Of the women, Carmela Remigio was the most impressive: a firm lyric soprano, good all round: diction, projection, phrasing, even throughout the range. Her final aria (admittedly something of a gift to any young soprano with talent) was superb despite a lapse of memory that forced her to miss a bar until she found her place again (I checked: neither of my neighbours actually noticed).

Daniela Pini is a promising mezzo, her only trouble being lack of volume in the lower range. Desirée Rancatore was to some extent a disappointment: either she had a cold, or her voice is not fulfilling its initial promise: on Sunday, it was very small and the high notes were very “pinched.” However, she used stratospherically high coloratura to good comic effect (causing Corinna to faint), and when alone with a light accompaniment, gave us some very fine, creamy but accurate bel canto singing.

Of the men, Lawrence Brownlee may be the one to watch. His lack of stage experience showed in some pretty wooden acting, but he sang with commitment and thrust and sounded to me like the kind of “heroic” Rossini tenor who could take on (Rossini’s) Otello. Giovanni Furlanetto was a stylish, charismatic young Don Profondo and got loud applause, possibly more for his charisma than his voice. Michele Pertusi was the most powerful of the men, but his intonation was somewhat rude and his characterisation of the shy Lord Sydney was rather flat.

Praticó was Praticó, a great master of ceremonies chivvying everyone along, hamming it up and improvising dialogue, but occasionally careless: twice, he nearly derailed recitative ensembles by coming in at the wrong moment.

Under the swift but delicately attentive baton of Rani Calderon, the orchestra was on great form. They gave the marvellous score what it requires and deserves: the same attention as they would to Mozart. It was a very entertaining afternoon.

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