Gioachino Rossini was not just an enormously successful composer and gourmand extraordinaire, but also a highly astute businessman. When he eventually went to the celestial grande bouffe in 1868, he left an estate worth millions of francs.
According to Sosthènes de la Rochefoucauld, Rossini composed “Il Viaggio a Reims” as “un homage complètement désintéressé,” which was 19th century French Court-speak for freebee. This was glaringly inconsistent with “Signor Crescendo’s” customary actuarial acuity, which was as finely honed as his olfactory finesse for fois gras. One explanation as to why Rossini permitted only four performances of this wildly successful work was that he always intended to recycle much of “Il Viaggio’s” material (this time with author’s royalties) into another opera which happened to be “Le Comte Ory” three years later.
For “Il Viaggio’s” premiere, Rossini had fourteen of the finest singers in Europe at his disposal, including the prima donna assoluta, Giuditta Pasta as Corinna. Claudio Abbado’s revival in 1984 was arguably even better cast and included Cecilia Gasdia, Katia Ricciarelli, and Ruggero Raimondi.
Not Quite That Luxury
Oper Graz certainly didn’t have the luxury of such big-name singers, but on the other hand, the exuberance and enthusiasm of the young, mostly ensemble principals made for a performance which was in all respects “delightful, delicious and de-lovely” as Cole Porter would say. This was Rossinian joie de vivre par excellence and the combination of outstanding singing with a nectarous mis-en-scène ensured the first-ever performance of Rossini’s masterpiece in Graz was in all respects a succès fou.
Other than a few inconsequential love triangles, there isn’t much of a plot to Luigi Balocchi’s libretto for “Il Viaggio a Reims”, which as a pièce de circonstance is largely based on Madame de Staël’s self-serving, semi-autobiographical novel “Corinne.” The languid Ossianic eponymous poetess dampens the divertissement on two occasions, first with some feel-good “peace and love” improvisations, then a fawning homage to Charles X, both of which are accompanied by a celestial harp.
The rinky-dink storyline involves a group of pan-European aristocrats, many with double-entendre or punned names, traveling to the coronation of Charles X in Reims. They stop off in Madame Cortese’s Hôtel du Lis d’or en route but due to a lack of horses to take them any further, never make it to the mecca of Mumm and Montaudon. As an alternative, they decide to go to Paris where the post-coronation festivities are promised to be much more fun than standing for hours in a gloomy Gothic cathedral.
Before their departure a spontaneous multi-national “Plombières-les-Bains’ Got Talent” show is staged, culminating in a blatantly obsequious panegyric to the new monarch – who according to contemporary critic Castil-Blaze, was noticeably bored by Rossini’s opera. In terms of champagne fizz and froth, Prince Orlofsky’s soirée musicale in “Die Fledermaus” seems like a tepid interlude in comparison to Madame Cortese’s prognostic Eurovision Song Contest for itinerant aristocrats.
Overcoming the Crowd
With fourteen major characters in the cast, correct identification can be confusing. Director Bernd Mottl overcame the problem by having distinctive costumes for each of the principals, often aided by a national sash, which made things much easier than Emilio Sagi’s identical bathrobe staging in Barcelona or Christoph Marthaler’s uniform evening dress in Zurich. Individual room doors with a national flag pasted on the outside helped to delineate the guests from the outset.
The costumes by Alfred Mayerhofer were predictably outrageous in a pantomime fashion although the flower suits with faces peeping through the petals in “Come dal cielo, Sul primo albor” were not exactly original. Corinna’s shimmering gold gown could have come from the wardrobe of Gina Lollobrigida.
Friedrich Eggert’s revolving stage design revealed a number of fleur de lys covered rooms and galleries, which gave space and wit to Madame Cortese’s recherché watering hole. The movement of characters between rooms, such as the sextet’s tiptoe departure from the dueling area to snoop into Corinna’s bathroom was pure Blake Edwards. There were some very cute ideas such as Corinna singing “Arpa gentil” in a bubble bath with her harpist peacefully plucking away in the corner. During “Medaglie incomparabili” Don Profondo inspects the guests’ luggage in the manner of an airport baggage security check. Admittedly there were less “perle del Perù” or “corni e trombone” but instead a lot of contemporary surprises such as a Faschingshut which caused loud guffaws from the locals. Libenskof’s portmanteau included some very large tins of Beluga caviar, one of which Profondo quietly slipped into his jacket.
Ensemble of Highest Quality
From the bossy housekeeper Maddalena’s first “Presto, presto su, corraggio” with chorus, it was clear this was going to be an ensemble performance of the highest quality and Andrea Purtić made much of this cameo role.
A cross between Sibyl Fawlty and Madame Artois in “Allo, Allo”, Sonja Šarić was a fabulous Madame Cortese. This was a crypto-anarchist châtelaine who had seen it all and was not in the least intimidated by her illustrious guests, as evinced by “Naturale è l’impazienza.” “Di vaghi raggi adorno” displayed immaculate roulades with a refined Rossini technique and the “I forestieri presto se n’ vanno” stretta was a paragon of precise patter singing. Her jaunty song contest Tirolese duet with Don Profondo was thigh-slappy and beer-inducing.
Martin Simonovski’s Uriah Heep-ish Don Prudenzio seemed anything but prudent and he was probably struck off the list of medical practitioners before ending up in Plombières-les-Bains. That certainly didn’t stop a boastful “grazie al mio talento, stian già tutti meglio assai.”
Wilfried Zelinka was a model buffo Don Profondo and the celebrated “Medaglie incomparabili” scena was very funny indeed. The tortuous tongue twister text was delivered with articulated zeal and Zelinka’s reading of the “A giorni il re ritorna” letter created the requisite suspense and excitement.
As the music-loving Barone di Trombonok, Polish bass Dariusz Perczak was more an inspiration for several clever musical jokes on the fortepiano continuo than his capacity for coloratura. That said, Perczak launched the great sextet with emphatic C major certitude. As maître de la musique for the spontaneous songfest, Perczak had more presence and “Or che regna fra le genti” (better-known as the historically incorrect “Deutschland über Alles”) reached a fine climax on “Viva, viva l’armonia.”
Sporting an absurd Salvador Dalí waxed mustache, Ivan Oreščanin was a wimpish Spanish admiral Don Alvaro, vocally more buffo than bel canto. The leaps in “Questa vaga e amabal dama” were not as pristine as Melibea’s but both were superior to the Count. The Iberian triple time “Omaggio all’augusto duce” in the song contest was Rossini in prime zarzuela mode.
The Russian comic book character Libenskof was a cross between Boris Christoff and Boris Karloff with a pinch of Rasputin for good measure but Miloš Bulajić seemed not quite ready for the strenuous vocal demands of the role. This tenor part often leads the ensembles which put “Non pavento alcun periglio” for example initially on less-secure ground. The introduction to the “Viva il diletto augusto regnator” finale was similarly sub-optimal. In Russia’s “Onore, gloria ed alto omaggio” contribution, Bulajić’s pinched high C would probably have got a nul point vote from the jury.
The voluptuous Polish widow Marchesa Melibea was sung by charisma-plus mezzo Anna Brull as a vampy Marilyn Monroe femme-fatale type with a hint of S&M. Enormous swept-back blond coiffure and a spectacular scarlet gown made a riveting impact. No wonder Libenskof was besotted. Brull had some wonderful plummy chest notes in the amusing “Il mio crudel rigore” scena with the Count, which is one of the finest duets Rossini ever wrote.
Elena Galitskaya was a suitably wacky Contessa di Folleville preferring to die rather than be seen in anything less than the latest haute couture. Folleville has the highest-lying tessitura in the score and “Partir, o ciel! Desio” was a showstopper with some explosive downward octave runs on “Non ho provato ancor.” There were more fireworks on “ben grata ognor sarà” and a series of stratospheric ornamentations reaching a high E natural before leading to the quintessential Rossini accelerando crescendo finale.
Slovakian baritone Peter Kellner managed to get past the cerise suit, paisley shirt and campy Cage aux Folles characterization of Lord Sidney to deliver some exceptionally fine singing. “Ah! perché la conobbi?” had the bonus of inspired obbligato flute playing by Heike Straub-Kossegg. Kellner’s low F naturals were rich and refulgent with measured legato and roundness of timbre. “Del grand’Enrico il germe amato” (better known as “God Save the King”) was so mellifluously sung, it was as if the sun had never set on the British Empire.
Draped in a shimmery gold gown, jet-black haired Tetiana Miyus was a stunning-looking Corinna and her vocal expertise was no less impressive. “Arpa gentil” requires long sustained phrasing and exemplary breath control and Miyus’ technical skills were outstanding. The lengthy “All’ombra amena del Giglio d’or” ‘improvised’ laudation to Charles X was again full of very long high floaty phrases but sounded slightly more strained than the bubble bath ballade.
Other Major Party Goers
The party provided an opportunity for the excellent Oper Graz chorus to join the festivities and the tricky fast rhythms in “L’allegria è un sommo bene” were kept in crisp tempo.
From the surviving morceaux of the autograph score, Rossini’s notation is exceptionally precise with detailed markings as to articulation, dynamics and fermatas. Oper Graz’s immensely talented musical director Oksana Lyniv seemed naturally suited to the Rossinian style as foie gras on “Signor Crescendo’s” tournedos. Not only was the young Ukrainian conductor able to keep a tight rein on the agitato accelerando ensemble sections, she was also masterful at handling the subtle lyrical rubati. The orchestra’s color was pellucid with particularly fine playing from the woodwinds. The string introduction to “Come dal cielo, Sul primo albor” had biting syncopated marcati and horn punctuations during “Non pavento alcun periglio” were pungent without being intrusive. The rollicking foot-tapping trumpet blasting accelerando in “A tali accenti, in seno” was Rossini’s music at its scintillating best.
The production did not end with a gushy visual encomium to Charles X but, instead, a huge EU flag billowed on the stage as thousands of blue and gold stars fell gently into the auditorium. Rossini was a great believer in the power of music to transcend political borders and the director’s update was both timely and appropriate. Europa triumphant, Brexiters beware.
At “Il Viaggio’s” premiere, Restoration etiquette prohibited public applause in the presence of the King, which must have been tiresome for divi accustomed to rapturous acclamation after every flashy fioratura. Fortunately, such a proscription went the way of the unlamented Bourbons and 21st-century Grazers showed their appreciation with cacophonous jubilation.
To make an appropriately Rossinian viticultural metaphor, this performance had not just champagne sparkle, it was nothing less than Krug Grand Cuvée.