The cemeterial, empty worship of dead singers and dead conductors and the adoration for the good old times that might or might not have actually been that good in the first place, together with the YouTube reviewers is one of the most fascinating phenomena in opera -- and probably the creepiest. Historically awesome productions must therefore, to follow the cult of the past, considered de facto lame because, say, Montsy or Claudione or whomever is not there anymore, and the past is always king (for some).
That's why among the more dogmatic Scalagoers the revival of Luca Ronconi's staging of Il Viaggio a Reims was by definition A BAD THING -- because it was once staged with greater musicians on the stage and in the pit.
OC's reaction to all that? She went twice (the premiere before Easter and the seconda rappresentazione after it). And she even liked it more the second time, imperfections and all (because opera is livelier and cooler and, frankly, more alive on a stage than on YouTube or in someone's cranky, possibly unreliable memories)
Rossini's legendary Coronation opera, the last Italian opera he inked (although we hear a revival in Le comte Ory -- one of the four, subsequent French-language operas Rossini stamped before he died), was originally commissioned to celebrate the 1825 coronation of King Charles X in Reims.
Viaggio a Reims is a demanding work, requiring 14 soloists (three sopranos, one contralto, two tenors, four baritones, and four basses culminating in a "Gran Pezzo Concertato" for 14 voices), and to stage coherence amid so many voices and Rossini's sometimes insensitive, comical undertones is a daunting task. There's also the multifaceted chorus, and the entire army of Charles' coronation party. But director Luca Ronconi's direction was sparkling with just one intermission (coming almost 2 hours into the production), and the 3+ hour opera seemed to last only a fraction of the running time.
Ronconi's legendary directorial premiere of Viaggio a Reims was in Pesaro for the 1984 Rossini Opera Festival, which was the first time it was heard with the rediscovered cuts & reconstruction, meticulously prepared by musicologist Janel Johnson & professor/musicologist Philip Gossett in the 1970s. The same production has been resurrected a handful of times: In 1985 at La Scala (again with Claudio Abbado); in the early 1990s at Pesaro & Ferrara for Rossini's bicentennial; and in 1999 for the Rossini Opera Festival (this one boasting Daniele Gatti leading our lamby prince, Juan Diego Florez ). Director John Cox tried for Covent Garden in the 90s, as did James Robinson for the New York City Opera, but none could adequately compete with Ronconi's perpetual exposition...not even Dario Fo's excellent (but politicized & liberally adapted) version for the Finnish National Opera in 2003.
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Ronconi's success with this production is that he speaks to the cultured. He's highbrow without being scholarly. Unlike his peers that assume the audience is comprised of tourists or novices, Ronconi trusts that you know what you've gotten yourself into. Instead of grotesque caricatures, his characters are streamlined and contained. Instead of overt comedic conventions, he cunningly does irony. It's a gorgeous billet doux, reclaiming opera as theater. Nor does Ronconi dwell on the political debates or dissections of Luigi Balocchi's dramma giocoso. Vignettes of action take over the stage, and such a beast can easily support the theatrical distractions that Ronconi has spun.
All of this was thoroughly discussed at Scala a couple weeks ago by Philip Gossett for Amici della Scala's Prima delle Prime (sucks if you missed it!) -- Gossett enumerated (in Italian language) the historical context, performance history, and of course, musicology of this heady opera in an exceptional discourse (you can also find a scholarly overview in his Divas & Scholars). He stressed that the message of the opera was unity among the continents, as opposed to discriminating each culture for their particularities. Gossett also recounted that the opera's name had been changed twice (and libretto modified heavily for political reasons): it was first renamed in 1848 to "Andremo a Parigi" for reasons behind the French Revolution and then in 1854 it was changed to "Un Viaggo a Vienna" for the Austrian Franz Josef's marriage to Elisabetta.
For Scala's confines to Ronconi's direction, a defining, square structure caged in the entire orchestra pit, creating a runway for the singers (and during the curtain call, the entire orchestra) to parade about. Although the white runway contained the action within the theater, fluid and constant action took place outside in an adjacent square, Piazza San Fedele, with its monument to Manzoni and church of the same name. (There are pictures of this production all over the internet...but as per La Scala's policy with the Opera Chic blog, she won't post them here.)
A clavicembalo and fortepiano were on diametric ends of the stage, played by two soloists who interacted with the singers throughout the night. Everything exposed and unobstructed, Maestro Ottavio Dantone entered the pit from stage level, stepping down to greet his orchestra. This was a white-bright, light-flooded production (and awesomely enough, to compensate for the heat of all those lamps, Scala cranked the air conditioning, for once!).
Although the audience received him well enough, Dantone approached the overture with an affected & overworked pull. His skill is demonstrated through harmony and balance, effective crescendi and timing, but it's overall a thin and unexciting sound. And to compensate, many times the brass section was too strong. Soloists were outstanding, and flute player Davide Formisano deserves a shout-out for his spotlight appearance.
The staging begins at the Plombières Health resort "L'albergo del giglio d'oro", where the European dignitaries are thrown together for the same event: Charles X's coronation at Reims, a popular city to coronate French kings.
The infringements of media is an overt theme, from Maddalena's appearance (sung wonderfully by Paola Gardina) as pursued by a band of camera & video-wielding paparazzi, as well as Madama Cortese, skillfully-sung by Carmela Remigio (who we would have liked to see as a bit more prima-donna-ish). But Ronconi was simply responding to the huge media buzz that was created in the mid-80s when his new staging had its Pesaro premiere.
The heavy manipulation of media is further manifest by onstage screens broadcasting a simulcast production unfolding in Teatro alla Scala's neighboring landmarks. Charles X's meticulously & richly costumed royal guard marched slowly through Piazza San Fedele, into the church, down Galleria Vittorio Emanuele (where we see the facades of Louis Vuitton & Rizzoli in the background with silent & polite tourists) and finally back to Piazza della Scala, where they eventually rush into the theater at the final climax, and cram into every entrance of the orchestra.
This is interactive theater at its best. Singers entered multiple times through the center aisle and traipsed through the audience, with Annick Massis's Contessa di Folleville (at "Modestina?...Ove sta?") being the first to enter like this. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't -- Barone di Trombonok's Bruno Pratico entered from the aisle and then snatched the baton from Dantone's hands, waved it around in mock conducting, while other singers would enter and take the hands of unsuspecting audience members and lay down a kiss -- distracting? Like MTV bred a generation of ADHD.
Costumes, of course, had to reflect their individual ethnicities, but nothing was grotesquely exaggerated. Costumes were relevant to the era, while a few incorporated a 1920s art deco synthesis, specifically Massis's column wrapped in a French flag. The only costume that didn't meld was the somber, black v-neck, floor-length dress of the female chorus, completely incongruous and disjointed.
Annick Massis's intelligent reading of the Contessa (with adorable, black curls) was a welcomed departure from frivolity and ornamentation that can sometimes entwine the Auntie Mame-ish character. "Partir, oh ciel!, desio" was sublime and solid. Her runs during the later "Grazie vi rendo, oh Dei!", were sick, displaying her gluttony for intricately penned cadenze. Her middle notes were on solid, creamy grounds while her top range blossomed into gorgeous coloratura.
The poet Corinna's "Arpa gentil, che fida" marked the glorious entrance of Patrizia Ciofi (premiered by Guiditta Pasta in Paris). La Ciofilina stood frozen behind a backlit screen in silhouette, with an idealized harp-shaped headband sprouting from her blond waves. Gorgeous white, Annunciation lilies were thrown at her feet.
Patrizia Ciofi's Corinna was painstakingly perfect in every aspect: gorgeous color, practiced technique, and fluid agility. Looking like a playful sprite in her golden robes (since the direction is so constant with steep staircases, everyone was in flats), la Ciofilina was unstoppable. Her duet with Juan Francesco Gattel as Cavalier Belfiore was gorgeous, building until the flawless "Oh! quanto ingannasi". Her voice was so light and otherworldly, sweet and delicate.
Other standouts? Alastair Miles's Lord Sidney won't be easily forgotten, as he sang a lovely "Invan strappar dal core". Don Profondo, sung by Nicola Ulivieri had a charismatic stage presence, and his famous (and extremely challenging) catalog of the European aristocrats was a treat, although showing much wear & tear and worrying strain towards the end. Conte di Libenskof's Dmitry Korchak was sang in a truly effortless tenor. "D’alma celeste, oh Dio!", his duet with the exceptional mezzo Marchesa Melibea (sung excellently by Daniela Barcellona) showed-off that same ease and lightness as a young Juan Diego Florez (without the charisma) and his pronunciation and color was stunning. Don Luigino, sung by Enrico Iviglia, was also notable. And Alessandro Guerzoni's Don Prudenzio in golden satin britches was also captivating, sounding very much like a young Ferruccio Furlanetto.
The ballet was absolutely breathtaking. As Professor Gossett had pointed out in his presentation, for Rossini it was an aberration to incorporate ballet, as Armida was his only other opera that boasted such a spectacle. For the coronation, no expense was spared: an industrial walkway was lowered from the stage ceiling, which dangled like a balance two halves of a stage. As the guests were seated below, the floating stage drifted together to form a full theater. All eyes went to the ceiling to find four puppet ballerine who were rigged up with wires by the wizardry of Carlo Colla and sons. A fully-realized music box of metal-jointed ballerine, pieces of wood handled with such expertise by the puppeteers that they seemed living, breathing forms. After such a gorgeous vision, the stage seperated the ballerine dangled precariously over the guests.
Then came the entertaining, dance-off finale where the guests showed off their skills in a talent show of their national hymns and cultural leanings to welcome the King. Madama Cortese & Don Profondo's yodeling was the best, of course.
Then the finale, the coup de théâtre of this tribute to Ronconi's pulsing & evolving stage craft. After witnessing Charles X receive blessings at Chiesa di San Fedele on the simulcast, the corps advanced to Piazza della Scala, where they break into a trot, which turned into a full-on sprint to the front doors of the theater. The screens went dark as they reached the center aisle, and broke through every orchestra entrance to the theater.
For such a masterpiece and legendary staging of the representation of il Viaggio, it's a shame that Scala's frankly astronomic prices (which were raised after the economic crisis) kept the spectators away. For such a monumental undertaking, there were many seats in every row of the orchestra empty, nor was loggione booked solid. It seems Lissner's 225 euro (plus a hefty booking tax) is keeping away both the cash-strapped tourists as well as the budgeting Milanese during the economic crisis.
Why isn't this work preformed more? It's a true gem of opera as theater. After 25 years, Ronconi's staging is still a veritable masterpiece: amusing, exhilarating, engaging, and the spectrum of roles. Divas & dandies. Ronconi's vision is still as modern and fresh as the young singers that owned the stage.