Viaggio à Reims Fails to Amuse in Zurich Opera’s Production

SwitzerlandSwitzerland Rossini, Il Viaggio à Reims: Soloists, Chorus of the Zurich Opera, Philharmonia Zurich, Conductor: Daniele Rustioni. Zurich Opera, Zurich. 18.12.15. (JR)


Rossini, Il Viaggio à Reims


Producer – Christoph Marthaler
Set and costumes – Anna Viebrock
Lighting – Martin Gebhardt
Chorus master – Ernst Raffelsberger
Dramaturgy – Malte Ubenauf, Kathrin Brunner


Corinna – Rosa Feola
La Marchesa Melibea – Anna Goryachova
La Contessa di Folleville – Julie Fuchs
Madame Cortese – Serena Farnocchia
Il Cavaliere Belfiore – Edgardo Rocha
Il Conte di Libenskof – Javier Camarena
Lord Sidney – Nahuel Di Pierro
Don Profondo – Scott Conner
Il Barone di Trombonok – Yuriy Tsiple
Don Alvaro – Pavol Kuban
Don Produenzio – Roberto Lorenzi
Don Luigino – Spencer Lang
Maddalena – Liliana Nikiteanu
Modestina – Rebeca Olvera
Delia – Estelle Poscio
Zefirino – Iain Milne
Antonio – Ildo Song
Gelsomino – Christopher Hux
Günter Bröhl – Marc Bodnar
Carlo Enzio Scrittore – Raphael Clamer
Madama Diedenhofer – Altea Garrido
Signora Gemello-Fraterno – Evelyn Angela Gugolz
Signora Gemello-Identico – Ilona Kannewurf
Barone Tensione del Collo – Sebastian Zuber

Zurich Opera are putting on, over the Christmas and New Year period, no fewer than twelve performances of this new production, a Rossini opera which many will not have heard of, let alone seen or actually heard. That’s quite a financial gamble, the opera house must be counting on critics telling the public that it’s a really enjoyable romp, suitable for Grandma and the children, a fun pantomime (without admittedly much of a plot) even if without a donkey and the Dame. I’m afraid that this critic found little to enjoy. It was however pleasing to see that the advertising hype had managed to draw in a different crowd to the usual opera buffs; some, however, left after the interval (I was sorely tempted), those who stayed did seem to get something out of it.

It has to be said that Rossini never contemplated the work as an opera. It was commissioned to celebrate the coronation of French King Charles the Tenth in Reims in 1825. At its premiere it was sung by the finest voices of the day. Rossini thought the piece would be performed a few times and then be discarded. In fact, it was put on the shelf where it remained for a hundred and fifty years; the different parts were re-found and re-assembled by musicologists in the 1970s and the first performance after its reconstruction was given at the Rossini Opera Festival some thirty years ago under the baton of Claudio Abbado. The cast included Araiza, Nucci, Raimondi, Ramey, Ricciarelli and Valentini Terrani and must have been quite a vocal show. Covent Garden staged it in 1992 with Carlo Rizzi in the pit, and Caballé, Fleming and McNair on stage. I heard a recent revival on Radio 3 and there was much laughter – not so in Zurich.

The opera is set in one of those now faded and crumbling hotels, common all over Europe a hundred and fifty years ago, when wealthy travellers would take the waters in a hotel which combined comfort with curative thermal baths: from Buxton via Baden-Baden to Karlsbad. Rossini sets the piece in the “Golden Lily” somewhere in provincial France: individual members of the aristocracy and some leading politicians have gathered there from all over Europe with the same destination, Reims, to attend the King’s coronation. But there’s trouble – all the horses needed to pull the carriages have been rented out and the travellers are stranded. The travellers decide to hold their celebrations in the hotel instead and the fun can commence in the shape of twenty or more unrelated humorous episodes.

Christoph Marthaler (former highly controversial Intendant of the Zurich Schauspielhaus, the city’s principal theatre) adds to the absurd and grotesque merriment by turning the hotel into a sanatorium and the Director of the hotel becomes a strange doctor in a white coat – are the guests really en route to a coronation or simply mad? Most of them display nervous ticks or disorders of one sort or other. Funny for a moment, irritating after a short while. I lost the plot when the final scene was sung behind a charred piece of wreckage from an airplane – presumably Lockerbie or the more recent disaster near Sharm el Sheikh. (Apparently the Producer had his doubts about his production, as the première was not long after the Paris/Bataclan massacres).

The set has other oddities – photos of public figures such as Spanish King Juan Carlos, the Queen (painted, I think, by disgraced TV artist Rolf Harris), Tony Blair, Bernie Ecclestone and Sepp Blatter adorn the walls, but I wasn’t sure what message that was supposed to be sending: perhaps that the European Community and certain public figures are in trouble and many belong in an psychiatric institution?

The whole piece would have little value were it not for some fine and virtuosic parts for the singers.  Top of the pile was Javier Camarena with his light and very flexible tenor, though he had to belt out his top notes. I heard him sing more robustly a few years ago as Count Ory. Rossini in fact used much of the material from Il Viaggio in Count Ory – but that opera has a hilarious plot and, in the Zurich opera, has a producer who draws out all the humour successfully. Marthaler’s humour was simply too wacky for me, and most of those round me sat stony-faced at the goings-on. Perhaps I failed to understand Swiss-German humour – if such a thing exists. I was particularly irritated and distracted when actors gyrating, fighting or running across the stage, or flashing lights, accompanied most of the arias. Best visual joke was a trio of remote-controlled mini-vacuum cleaners, released from the prompter’s box.

Most of the audience did not have programmes and those who did could hardly read them in the dim light of the auditorium. That meant that most had no clue who was supposed to be whom, their nationality, their relationship to the other characters (if any), their position in society; important, as several national anthems are sung (or partly yodelled in the case of the Austrian anthem). We were all, literally, in the dark. The libretto is of hardly any help – and towards the end of the opera the surtitles unhelpfully gave up the ghost.

The piece needs really big name singers to have a chance. Zurich Opera tried hard, but their budget did not stretch to the likes of Renée Fleming and Monserrat Caballé. Edgardo Rocha’s fine young tenor impressed. There was some fine singing from the quartet of ladies, Rosa Feola, Anna Goryachova, Julie Fuchs and Serena Farnocchia. Costumes and set were from the 1970s.  Scott Conner sang a long, witty aria (particularly when he sang Italian with an English accent) and managed to look like Basil Fawlty (John Cleese), I’m not sure that was intended. Nahuel di Pierro, as Lord Sidney, the Englishman, did not look English at all.

Daniele Rustioni in the pit did a competent job and brought out what wit there is in the score; the flute solo (Maurice Heugen) was splendid.

It was all supposed to be nonsense but failed to put this critic in a festive spirit.

John Rhodes

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