The Gran Teatre del Liceu’s 2017/2018 season opened with Rossini’s dramma giocoso Il viaggio a Reims, the “event piece” written exclusively for the coronation of France’s Charles X in Reims in 1825. Apart from the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro (one of the co-producers), this otherwise infrequently performed work has received a bright yet perhaps over-minimalist staging by Emilio Sagi.

A fixed set portraying the sun deck and furnishings of a spa hotel (using only the stage front) provides the opera’s eclectic group of European aristocrats an unexpectedly informal aspect from the outset, replete with bathrobes, towels and slippers. This is novel, but confuses the audience as to who is who in the story. Not until the end of the second act, an hour and a half into the performance, does the cast change to more formal dining attire and the audience has a minimally clearer idea of the different nationalities (and idiosyncracies) portrayed.

Il viaggio a Reims provided an inspired Rossini the opportunity to experiment with the complexity of 14 voices in dynamic interaction (ten principals – including the Barone di Trombonok and Don Alvaro), from solos to duets, trios, sextets and famously all voices together, in the Act 2 scene 4 ensemble “Ah! A tal colpo inaspettato" sung a cappella. All the concertantes in this production were pinpoint accurate, clearly a tribute to many hours of rehearsal.

Giacomo Sagripanti’s conducting demonstrated tight control of his musicans and singers and the result was a precise, lively piece of work. The orchestra performed very well, with excellent dynamics from whole ensemble to the delightful solo instrumental performances. Here the harp prelude and accompaniment to the poetess Corinne’s solos “Arpa gentil” (sung offstage from the first level balcony which was an inspired idea) and “All'ombra amena del Giglio d'or”, together with the flute solo introducing Lord Sidney’s Act 2 aria “Invan strappar dal core” were fine examples.

Individual performance highlights in the female roles included the Russian soprano Irina Lungu, who sang the part of the poetess Corinne. Her fine breath control with elegant phrasing made these two difficult solo pieces high points of her performance. Soprano Sabina Puértolas debuted in the role of the vain Contessa di Folleville and showed vocal competence and good characterisation. She sang her solo eulogy to her recovered headgear whilst in amusing choreographed cortège. Ruth Iniesta has sung the part of Madame Cortese before and this showed in her assured performance with excellent projection and range.

In the male roles, Don Profundo’s solo “Medaglie incomparabili”, one of the great examples of Rossiniesque canto silabato, sung on this occasion by Italian Pietro Spagnoli, was a vocal and theatrical delight. The Libenskof (Lawrence Brownlee) and Marchioness Melibea (Maite Beaumont) duet was well executed with a believable dynamic between the two characters. Brownlee’s fine tenor timbre complimented Beumont’s mezzo well. A charismatic Carlos Chausson debuted the role of Baron Tombonok. Whilst a minor role, this was an outstanding performance both vocally and in the portrayal of his character. Roberto Tagliavini sang the role of Lord Sidney and vocally he performed his solo “Invan strappar dal core” well, though did not wholly convince as the lovelorn noble. A mention for Manel Esteve Madrid’s Don Alvaro, a short, demanding role, sung and acted well and tenor Taylor Stayton in the role of Chevalier Belfiore, who competently performed in his duet with Corinne, but perhaps lacked some vocal projection.

The final celebratory scene in accolade of the new king was accompanied by a strangely ironic sole procession of a child king representing Charles X down the centre aisle. It was a curious end to the opera, being perhaps Sagi’s metaphor for the fragility of monarchy, as Charles X‘s reign was short lived.