Damiano Michieletto's production of Il Viaggio a Reims has come to Sydney from Amsterdam and Rome. It's still the same glorious music, the cast is pretty much all that the demands of this 14-soloist, big splash of an opera needs and the frivolity runs throughout. Yet the question hangs (like the many pictorial images that are at the core of this production) as to whether Rossini's music would have been better appreciated if there had been slightly less playful action.

Sian Sharp (Marchesa Melibea) and Shanul Sharma (Conte di Libenskof) © Prudence Upton
Sian Sharp (Marchesa Melibea) and Shanul Sharma (Conte di Libenskof)
© Prudence Upton

The Conte di Libenskof (Shanul Sharma), for instance, is attempting a romantic reconciliation with the Marchesa Melibea (Sian Sharp) behind the giant picture frame that takes over the second half of this opera – now set in an art gallery rather than Rossini's hotel. His poetically-achieved tessitura constantly runs up against her implacable mezzo. Yet we are constantly distracted by a comparable reconciliation being mimed out of frame, front of stage, between the Chevalier Belfiore (Juan de Dios Mateos Segura) and the poetess Corinna (Irina Lungu). Even when the first couple move to harmonious duet, she is comforting Corinna as far away from Libenskof as she can be.

Somehow, perhaps closing the eyes to both the action and the surtitles – which seem to be the original words and therefore largely meaningless in this updated production – one can still hear the beauty of music, which some have called Rossini's finest.

Back in 1825, the composer wrote the opera for just four performances in Paris to celebrate the coronation (in Reims) of French king Charles X. The finest cast of the day was assembled (in an inn) to handle the demands of the opera – which includes a 14-part Gran Pezzo concertato – and the fractured politics of the day, which were subtexted via numerous European nationalities in dispute coming together in harmony at the coronation of “the delight of the French” – a King who was forced to abdicate after just five years.

The score was only brought back together in the 1980s and productions have been sparse, encouraging Michieletto to go back to Francois Gerard's painting of the coronation both in the form of its amazing live recreation for the final scene (however far he's flown from the original book, he has to return to the patriotic overload of the original end) and as an excuse to make this an opera about art and art lovers. Somehow he squeezes in paintings by Goya, Magritte, van Gogh, Velazquez, Ferdinand Botero and Keith Haring – all coming to life, the latter demanding a two-dimensional impersonator.

<i>Il viaggio a Reims</i> by Opera Australia © Prudence Upton
Il viaggio a Reims by Opera Australia
© Prudence Upton

Lord Sidney (the gravelly bass Teddy Tahu Rhodes), an Englishman who knows only one tune – God Save the Queen, even has an encounter with the love that rejected him via a surprisingly flexible Whistler canvas, then finds her in the flesh but he is still rejected. At the coronation he impersonates Wellington – presumably a snub to the French whom he'd recently defeated – in yet another of Carla Teti's outstandingly variegated costumes, ranging from 19th-century finery to the cast's underwear. One question, though: why was the German Barone di Trombonok visually identified as a Bishop?

The Opera Australia Orchestra, meanwhile, goes almost unnoticed – which may be high praise. But two principals demand mention: the harp of Jane Rosenson for her accompaniment of the poetess' lengthy patriotic oratory and Amanda Hollins' flute, which added much lustre to Lord Sydney's darkness and brought back fond memories of Dame Joan's fluted Lucia. They were under the dynamic baton of Daniel Smith, in his first appearance back in Australia (which included briefly wearing a feathered helmet) after a 20-year career in Europe and the US, which was greeted triumphantly.

As should the chorus have been. From their first appearance as bolshy gallery attendants to their last, singing mellifluously as they busily unwrapped the coronation setting (a reference to Christo?), they were immaculate.

Julie Lea Goodwin (Madama Cortese), Giorgio Caoduro (Don Profondo) and Irina Lungu (Corinna) © Prudence Upton
Julie Lea Goodwin (Madama Cortese), Giorgio Caoduro (Don Profondo) and Irina Lungu (Corinna)
© Prudence Upton

None of the major singers let the side down, though the audience had to overcome the extreme difficulty of identifying them. But some stood out: Sharma, an Indian brought up on Bollywood's music and a rock band, handled Libenskof's high mix of coloratura and bel canto with great delicacy. Julie Lea Goodwin brought cool style and panache to the gallery owner's role – kick-starting a somewhat slow beginning to the opera. And Giorgio Caoduro turned his man of letters role, Don Profondo, into a dynamic auctioneer with wit and a mastery of the patter song.

So much to admire and so much for an uncritical audience to laugh at and cheer. I was left somewhere in between.

***11