Hard-hatted handymen manoeuvre boxes marked "fragile" on command and busy curators cower in fear. The Golden Lilium Gallery is being readied for its imminent opening by its domineering director Madame Cortese. Little does she know that, when the lights go out, these works will come to life, springing from from their containers and unravelling themselves from polythene wrappings.

© Clärchen & Matthias Baus | Dutch National Opera (2015)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus | Dutch National Opera (2015)

Damiano Michieletto's production of Il viaggio a Reims, conceived for Dutch National Opera in 2015, makes its first Italian appearance at Rome's Teatro dell'Opera. Luigi Balocchi's libretto about assorted travellers that meet en route to Reims for the coronation of Charles X was commissioned by the same king for the occasion in 1825. Michieletto takes inspiration from François Gérard painting Le Sacre de Charles X, and follows through the art analogy with conviction. Travellers are imagined as living sculptures, and their personal stories play out within the gallery.

The performance was dedicated to the recently-deceased Philip Gossett, the musicologist who played an instrumental part in the redsicovery of Il viaggio a Reims in the 1970s. He surely would have approved of this production, so effectively did it capture the frivolous essence of the work. Travellers clad in chitons and cloaks strike melodramatic poses that evoke the Hellenic aura recalled in Madame de Staël's satirical novel Corinne ou l'Italie on which the opera is based. A motley collection of paintings, from Botero's Melancholia to Velázquez's Infanta Margarita, are rolled onstage with freakish living representations in tow. During the sextet, singers form a tableau vivant bordered with a frame that drops from the heavens. An even larger frame takes up the entirety of the stage during the concertante, culminating in the production's pièces de résistance in the final scene when characters slowly arrange themselves into a representation of Gérard's painting.

Is Michieletto guilty of overkill? Certainly, one senses the director exhibiting his brilliance with the unabashed zeal of an enfant terrible. But his audacious style is also what Rossini's madcap drama requires. The production is cannily constructed, with Michieletto layering Rossini's set forms by mining the text for extra permutations in the plot. “Nel suo divin sembiante”, for example, is rendered a whimsical sketch about how Belfiore conquered Corinna's heart, by holding a terrified gallery visitor ransom and forcing him to offer up his clothes as a disguise. The moment when Corinna's aria “Arpa gentil” wafts in from the wings to a trio of nude bodies writhing by candlelight inspired by Canova's Tre Grazie is pure poetry. But it is Michieletto's favourite use of parallel planes of existence made to intermingle – here, the dreamlike world of the gallery's objects and the real one of its staff and visitors – that provides the extra element of magic.

Characterisations are well-defined on the whole, though not all of the voices carry in the unforgiving acoustic of the Teatro dell'Opera. Francesca Dotto was a pleasingly fearsome Cortese but she was small in sound when faced with Rossini's quickfire coloratura. Anna Goryachova looked the part as a celestial Melibea but her singing was muffled and left one wanting more bite. Maria Grazia Schiavo's Contessa di Folleville raised the roof with her petulant tirade prompted by news of her lost possessions, culminating in slick comedy when a gallery ward guided her into a container. A breast-plated Don Alvaro was given a heroic rendition by Simone Del Savio. Nicola Ulivieri was a booming Don Profondo, delivering the patter in “Medaglie incomparabili” marvellously, and holding an auction in which bids were made by extras from the ailes.

Adrian Sâmpetrean was a particular standout in the role of Lord Sidney, here a restorer who falls in love with John Singer Sargent’s portrait Madame X. Bruno de Simone exhibited sharp comic timing as an indignant Barone di Trombonok, and Argentinian tenor Juan Francisco Gatell proved charismatic as Belfiore, filling the house with his bright bel canto sound. Mariangela Sicilia's voluptuous delivery of Corinna's rolling lines was an especial treat. Conductor Stefano Montanari provides not the most refined reading of Rossini you will ever hear, though one that is dynamic and filled with explosive detail. All in all, a very worthy production for Rossinian pilgrims.