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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Rossini’s Trip to Nowhere

My wife's parents, enthusiastic world travelers and lifelong opera fans, found themselves in Milan in 1985 with some extra time on their hands. Anxious to see the famed La Scala Opera House, they bought tickets on the street (my father-in-law is the maven when it comes to that) for a Rossini opera they'd never seen. Performed in Italian minus Supertitles and with no libretto in hand, they enjoyed the singing but had not the slightest clue what the story was about. A few years later, a small opera company in their native Chicago put on the same opera—Il viaggio a Reims—so they gladly attended. Armed with a libretto translated into English, the experience was no less musically enjoyable, but the storyline proved only slightly less confusing.

When Emerging Pictures decided to include Viaggio as one of its 2009-10 “Opera in Cinema” productions, I simply had to drag them along to see it. This New York-based media company has created a network of more than 60 movie theaters and arts institutions across the United States providing digital programs that, aside from opera, include art- and foreign language films, documentaries, and various other cultural programs. The Harkins Northfield cineplex at I-70 and Quebec represents Emerging Pictures in the Denver metro area. Ironically, this national list of venues also includes the Cedar-Lee Theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, which is where I worked as an usher and ticket-taker during my college days. Ah, memories!

The Thursday evening cinecast of Viaggio was taken from a performance done at La Scala in Spring 2009. Even with subtitles up on the screen, though, I found the plot difficult to follow and amazingly convoluted.** The basic premise involves a group of international travelers anxious to attend a coronation at the cathedral in Rheims, France, only to be thwarted by a lack of available transportation. Apparently other parties have usurped all the horses for rent in the region. The libretto by Luigi Balocchi, with its the characters waiting around for a chance to move forward, forces everyone to interact in all sorts of interesting ways. The opera reminds me a bit of Canterbury Tales, with the Golden Lily Inn in the French town of Plombieres standing in for Chaucer’s Tabard Inn, and an international gaggle of hangers-on substituting for such people as The Knight, The Squire, and The Wife of Bath.

Musically speaking, Rossini seems to have taken a handful of unrelated arias and ensemble pieces, stirred them up in a lottery-style rotating cage, and inserted them randomly into the score. Given his penchant for reusing themes and musical passages from one opera to the next, each piece seems more than vaguely familiar. Rossini composed this opera for a particular event—to honor the coronation of France's Charles X in 1825, which also forms part of the plot—and had already planned to reuse much of the music in subsequent productions. That's the main reason why Viaggio was performed only three times before disappearing from the world's stages for more than 150 years. Close to half a dozen set pieces turn up in his 1828 comic opera, Le Comte Ory, which became his penultimate composition. Famed American musicologist Phillip Gossett was able to reconstruct Viaggio from autograph scores unearthed at several European libraries, which led to the mid-'80s revival mentioned above (although the opera first reappeared at the Rossini Festival in Pesaro in 1984).

This may well be the longest one-act opera in the Italian repertoire; this particular La Scala production came in at just under two hours and forty minutes. Director Luca Ronconi gave us tons of interesting things to look at while all the singing was underway. Because the action takes place at a spa, some of the singers made their entrances in wheeled bathtubs. In keeping with Rossini’s penchant for using recitative to move the plot (such as it was) ahead, Ronconi placed a harpsichord on either side of the stage (a woman played a single-rank instrument stage-right, while a man performed on a double-keyboard model stage-left) and encouraged the singers to interact with the musicians throughout the performance. The most entertaining moment of the opera comes toward the end, where each of the principals is invited to sing a song reflective of their nationality. The German baron offers a variation on a martial theme by Haydn, the Polish countess sings a Polonaise, two Swiss provide a duet that includes a bit of yodeling, and the British lord sings the only tune he knows, “God Save the King.” At an earlier point in the work, Rossini shows off his compositional skills by crafting an a cappella double septet (14 soloists) that’s incredibly impressive.

The Metropolitan Opera's Live in HD cinecasts allow those of us who live in Opera Flyover Land (i.e., not in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco) to see and hear some of the biggest names in opera. Over the past few years we have been treated to stellar performances by Anna Netrebko, Renée Fleming, Juan Diego Florez, Dolora Zajick, and Marcello Giordani, all of whom are unlikely to appear at opera houses in Denver, Detroit, or Des Moines anytime soon. But there is an entire group of opera singers who never sing here in the States, whether due to contractual considerations, personal preference, or for some other reason. Our only chance to enjoy these singers is to buy their CDs and DVDs, or to see them up on the screen. For this reason alone, Emerging Pictures is doing all of us in the United States a tremendous service.

The opera Il viaggio a Reims is a demanding one for producers, mainly because it requires the casting of no fewer than ten primary roles. Viewers on this side of the Atlantic were treated to perhaps their first exposure to three singers whose European careers have been nothing short of spectacular. Italian soprano Patrizia Ciofi is perhaps best known for her portrayal of the lead character in Donizetti’s La Fille du regiment, singing opposite Juan-Diego Flores in productions at Covent Garden and for Ópera Paris. One of her most dramatic roles has been preserved for posterity on DVD—an appearance alongside male soprano Michael Maniaci in the La Fenice [Venice, Italy] revival of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s final bel canto opera, Il Crociato in Egitto. French soprano Annick Massis enjoys a marvelous coloratura with clear, ringing top notes that seem to go on forever. One of her most acclaimed roles in the past several years was as Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, performed in Liege, Belgium, in 2005. She has done quite a few recordings for the British firm Opera Rara, most notably the title roles in Meyerbeer's Margherita d'Anjou [2003] and Donizetti's Francesca di Foix [2004]. British bass Alastair Miles is also a regular contributor to Opera Rara recordings, having joined Ms. Massis in Margherita and also performing major roles in Mercadante's Orazi e Curiazi [1995] and Donizetti's Dom Sebastien, roi de Portugal [2007]. He is equally at home in large choral works, appearing as the bass soloist in oratorios and masses by Haydn, Handel, Beethoven, Bruckner, and Mozart. His rich, deep voice has the sonority appropriate to heavier roles without appearing overburdened, and Miles is a worthy successor to Samuel Ramey, who debuted the role of Lord Sidney in the 1985 La Scala production of Viaggio and should strongly consider retiring from the operatic stage.

** A debt of gratitude to Charles Osborne's The Bel Canto Operas [Amadeus Press, 1994]; without his brilliant plot synopsis, I would have had no clue!

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