A host of glittering parties, arias, duets and vocal ensembles are the hallmark of Gioacchino Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims, an opera which has only the bare semblance of a plot. For what little there is of it, the story revolves around a host of prominent travellers trying to make their way to Reims for the coronation of the new French king. Guests at the “Golden Lily Hotel” are moneyed aristocracy and prominent politicians who take advantage of staff and refreshments, custom-made suits and other finery. Their opera stage is little more than a waiting room: backdrop to no fewer than 26 small episodic scenes that seem to have little relationship to one another.

Unsettling, however, is that the head of operations at the “Golden Lily” in the Zurich production is a rubbery-faced, unconventional dottore in an antiseptic lab coat, whose staff includes nurses and specialized technicians. Is the departure to the coronation fraught with complications because no horses can be found to transport the guests, or because these are, in fact, patients at a psychiatric hospital? The one paper-thin swimmer, who – with his apoplectic stare, sunken chest and simian expression – crosses the stage to the set’s “pool”, saw my own vote for “clinic”. Further, all the principal singers line up side-by-side in Act II, each one subject to overpowering “tics”: one is obsessed with straightening his tie; another pulses her head side to side; a third scratches all over. Hotel or clinic? Your guess is as good as mine.

Director Christoph Marthaler updates the work by referencing current European affairs; portraits of controversial public figures flanking the sombre set included those of King Juan Carlos of Spain; Roger Köppel, the editor of the popular right-wing Swiss weekly Weltwoche; and Sepp Blatter, the controversial former President of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) whose headquarters are some ten minutes up the hill. The appearance of such high riders satisfies a public greedy for scandal, an appetite the seasoned Marthaler seems to take pleasure in feeding.

Yet there were viable reasons to take liberties. The opera features 13 leading roles – each with a complicated name – and lacks transparency as to who means what to whom. Further, the libretto, containing confessions such as “I feel the fire of the sacred Muses” and “Fortune will always favour the courage of the holy”, rather tests even the most willing suspension of disbelief. Offering some form of distraction had to be expected, and the arguments for cosmetic surgery, directed in animated, but mute speech and including two live models, was simply hilarious. Don Profundo’s (Scott Conner) solo commentary on the foreign hotel guests, sung in each of their pronounced accents, also brought down the house.

The singing was almost consistently good and the Philharmonia Zürich, under the lively Daniele Rustioni, gave a truly splendid performance. Rossini’s small operatic episodes among couples repeatedly showcased the finer voices. When the seriously love-struck Cavalier Belfiore (Edgardo Rocha) sang of his admiration for Corinna (the stunning Rosa Feola), she responded first to his flattery with “What eloquence!” in a voice that was all cream. Later, chiding him for his “outrageous temerity”, she sang “flattery inspires distain among us women”, capably acting out the power of her distain. Just so, the jealous accusations of Melibea (the superb Anna Goryachova) towards the Count of Libenskof (the remorseful Javier Camarena) were musical exchanges of the finest order.

The huge cast of singers and the fine Zurich Opera Choir all deserve accolades: musically, the opera was “firmly in the saddle”, as the Germans say, an adage whose relevance to the libretto does not go unnoticed. Not even a “Temporary Libretto Disorder” could mitigate the emotive draw of the “French song”, which Corinna sang from high above the stage at the end of Act II.

In the programme notes, Marthaler maintains that multicultural interaction in this opera – the parrying among intimates, the controlled operations of a higher politic – are a microcosm of our modern European society. As such, the overriding message might be that our modern mess might be mitigated if one could just buy in to the sing-song of the libretto’s remarkable line: “Gaiety is the greatest treasure that Heaven has given us…” 

For a wacky gaiety this was. At the very end of the story, the group on stage held a bang-up party to celebrate their new king, and the applause of the Zurich audience made something of a seamless transition from the singers’ song of praise.