Rossini – Il viaggio a Reims

Théâtre du Châtelet – Paris, Monday December 12 2005

Conductor: Valery Gergiev. Production: Alaina Maratrat. Corinna: Irma Guigolachvili. Marchesa Melibea: Anna Kiknadze. Contessa di Folleville: Larissa Youdina. Madama Cortese: Anastastia Belyaeva. Cavalier Belfiore: Dmitir Voropaev. Conte di Libenskof: Daniil Shtoda. Lord Sidney: Edouard Tsanga. Don Profondo: Nikolaï Kamenski. Barone di Trombonok: Vladislav Ouspenski. Don Alvaro: Alexeï Safioulin. Don Luigino: Andreï Ilioushnikov. Maddalena: Elena Sommer. Modestina: Olga Kitchenko. Antonio: Pavel Shmoulevich. Orchestra of the Mariinski Theatre, St Petersburg. Mariinski Theatre Academy for Young Singers. And the horse, Prince.

If this second Viaggio of the season played with a 30-minute interval I suspect it was only because French bank Crédit Agricole needed the half-hour to pour champagne down the throats of the numerous and assorted bigwigs invited for their Christmas treat. Certainly, time flies when you’re having fun, and as we were all having an absolute whale of a time, thanks to these grinning, enthusiastic youngsters, the evening sped by (apart from waiting for Gergiev, who seems to make a point of being late) and we could have managed, for once, without.

Productions quite often spill out into the house, but they rarely break down to this extent the conventions more usually upheld between audience and performers. Music is conventionally listened to in silence, but here singers dangling their legs over the apron commented to the front rows while their colleagues sang taxing solos, and when the countess’s giant, striped hat-box arrived, from the very rear of the house, the orchestra was inaudible over the din of the chorus shouting to the audience to pass it over their heads to the stage.

In any case, the stage was everywhere: the pit was covered, and the white stage extended in a T-shaped catwalk into the house, boxing in some of the richer patrons, with steps wherever feasible. The opera started (15 minutes late, of course) with Mariinski Theatre cleaners hoovering in front of the curtain, apparently surprised to find an audience there. Then the noise began, all around, as singers and players poured in from every side (in costumes hovering somewhere between the 30s and the 50s) with their suitcases, and the curtain went up to reveal the inside of a round, seaside tent with, to the left, a tall lifeguard’s tower topped with a striped awning and to the rear, the Mariinski orchestra all – male and female – in white tails like a big band at Blackpool. Even the music stands were white.

The kids romped through a funny, highly professional production with a few effective props, and perhaps the high point of the evening was the arrival of Corinne (which involved getting a number of audience members to leave their seats to make way: never seen that before either…) in a vast, conical mountain of crushed white chiffon and huge, beehive hair all – dress and hair – lit from within. The audience lapped it up and was consequently – and rightly - indulgent as to the singing.

Casting students in Il viaggio seems a madcap idea: it was more or less a “royal command” work for the coronation of Charles X and Rossini was able to call on and compose for a dozen top singers. But I suppose when you’re touring your opera studio you need a showcase for as many of your best singers as you can thrust forward, and for that Il viaggio is ideal – the alternative being the less feasible War & Peace.

Naturally, the result was stylistically un-PC, with the wrong kinds of voice in the wrong roles, not to mention the Mariinski’s distinctive sound sounding distinctly odd, trumpets especially, in Rossini (but what a superb flute obbligato for Lord Sidney).

The singing varied considerably: Melibea had a presence bigger than her voice; Don Alvaro, in black leather from head to toe, was clearly chosen for his sex-appeal rather than his intonation…. while on the other hand, the Cavalier Belfiore was a very promising tenorino and, crazy though it may sound, in Irma Guigolachvili’s Corinna I thought I heard a voice like Caballé’s: this girl has power, presence and temperament, she already has a sense of style, of shading and phrasing and for now she has agility… I could hear her in Norma today and in the big Verdi roles later. One to watch.

The other one to watch will be Daniil Shtoda, not a huge tenor voice, but nevertheless musical, ringing and all in tune – including at the very top – where the production allowed them all to hold their notes hammily. I thought of the young Carreras, when he was still singing Rossini. But Shtoda, I learned later, has already sung Lensky in Paris, so he’s hardly a student…

Larissa Youdina, done up as a 50s blonde bimbo in a Marilyn wig and striped balloon dress, has the kind of “nightingale” voice that hasn’t been heard much in the west since coloratura sopranos crossed over into musicals in the 30s… Very high and rather hard, with rapid vibrato… I wonder what roles she’ll be able to take on outside Russia.

Don Profondo was sung by a young man with a big grin, floppy hair and rosy cheeks clearly cut out for a career as the drunken vagabond who’s so traditional a feature of the Russian repertoire. And finally, I’d like to put in word for Pavel Shmulevich as Antonio. Not much of a part, but what striking elegance he brought to it.

You don’t often get quite so much fun in an opera house, nor do you often hear quite so much wild applause…

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