The Dutch National Opera has chosen to open the year 2015 with a new production of a rarely performed work by Rossini: Il viaggio a Reims. This is taking quite a risk as the Amsterdam public has often shown little affinity with the “Swan of Pesaro”: even Olga Peretyatko, Lawrence Brownlee and Alex Esposito couldn’t sell out their Turco in Italia a couple of years ago. Judging from the enthusiastic cheers and roar of applause received by director Damiano Michieletto, conductor Stefano Montanari and the starry team of soloists, it was a risk worth taking.

Rossini’s last opera in Italian, Il viaggio was composed for the festivities around the coronation of King Charles X of France in 1825. It was never originally meant to survive beyond its four original performances at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris, and Rossini later reused most of its music for the better-known Le Comte Ory (1829). The first modern revival of Il viaggio a Reims at the Rossini Opera Festival in Pesaro in 1984, under the baton of Claudio Abbado, was a revelation: the music is some of the best Rossini ever composed, bel canto heaven. In spite of this successful revival, the work is still far too rarely performed. There are probably two main reasons to this. It is a very difficult work to cast as it requires no less than 14 soloists of the highest calibre; the original cast in 1825 included all the most famous voices of the time, headed by the acclaimed soprano Giuditta Pasta. Even more challenging is the libretto: how can a 21st century audience relate in any way with a rather meaningless comedy around the coronation of a French king of the Bourbon Restoration ?

The original plot can be summarized as follows: a loud and colourful company of European aristocrats from all corners of the continent are staying at the “Golden Lily” hotel (after the symbol of French Royalty) under the watch of landlady Madame Cortese. The company includes a coquettish Parisian countess, an enamoured English lord, a jealous Russian general and a dozen other characters. Their plan is to travel further to Rheims where, according to custom, Charles X will be crowned king of France the next day. They soon appear to all be stranded in the hotel as there are no horses left to resume their journey. They cheer up at the news of lavish festivities being organised in Paris for the return of the king in the capital and decide to take the regular stagecoach to Paris the next day. In the meantime, a banquet is organized at “the Golden Lily” during which the merry company sings the glory of France and its new king.

With director Damiano Michieletto, this libretto is in good hands for a thorough dusting. The young Italian director is perhaps best known for ingeniously transposing the action of Un ballo in maschera into a modern election campaign, in a 2013 production at La Scala – provoking the ire of the more traditionalist  loggionisti.  For Il viaggio, he moves the story into a museum, the “Golden Lily Gallery”, at the eve of the opening of a major exhibition. Madame Cortese (Carmen Giannattasio, rich-toned and stylish in “Di vaghi raggi adorno”) becomes a museum curator of the “Devil wears Prada” temperament; Don Profondo (the impeccable Nicolai Ulivieri) becomes an enthusiastic fine art auctioneer; Lord Sidney (Roberto Tagliavini, totally at ease in the high-lying coloratura of “Ivan strappar dal core” ) a restoration technician who has fallen in love with the painting he is working on. 

Other members of the cast are transformed into works of art that literally break the mould and start interacting with the real world. The action becomes  a surrealist tale, populated with live characters from paintings by Botero, Goya or Magritte. The interplay between two worlds creates situations which are at times poetic, at times comic, always engrossing. The public responded to the humour with much laughter. The visual spectacle culminates with the opening of the grand exhibition when, one by one,  all characters on stage take their place into the lavish sets by Paolo Fantin to accurately reconstitute the scene of “The coronation of Charles X”, a 1825 painting by François Gérard, in an impressive tableau vivant.

Musically, things were just as enjoyable. In the pit, conductor Stefano Montanari led the Nederlands Kamerorkest from behind his fortepiano on which he playfully ensured the continuo. He set lively and expressive tempi, always maintaining the balance with the stage. The soloists were all given the opportunity to shine in their individual performances, but it was perhaps the ensembles that left the listener most jubilant. Still, if I had to single out one scene, it would be the delightfully directed duet between the Knight Belfiore and the poetess Corinna (“Nel suo divin sembiante”) that combined Juan Francisco Gatell’s agile and bright-timbre tenor with Eleonora Buratto’s full but delicately-coloured lyric soprano. A blissful moment of musical theatre.