Indulgent visuals lose sight of reality

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Opera / Rossini’s “Il Viaggio a Reims” (The Journey to Rheims), Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House, until November 2. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA.

Artworks come to life on stage

THIS very short season of Rossini’s rarely-performed opera (too expensive) about a ragbag of travellers on route to the coronation of King Charles the 10th of France is one of the most extraordinary ventures ever seen on the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage.

I say extraordinary, because while Opera Australia has given a democratic share of the stage to 14 gifted singers who, with conductor Daniel Smith (who unwisely enters the action at one point) are obviously having the time of their lives, this overblown production is a piece of self-indulgence.

“Il Viaggio” provides ripe pickings for any director determined to make a name for him or herself. Notionally set in The Golden Lily spa hotel, it has also been staged in a jumbo jet and in this case, a contemporary art gallery.

The cast of “Il Viaggio a Reims” Photo: Prudence Upton.

With a vapid libretto that lurches from the agonies to the ecstasies, almost any meaning can be attached to it, but one thing is for certain, if the viewer hadn’t read the program they would have no idea of what was going on in director Damiano Michieletto’s version, staged in a co-production deal for Opera Australia, the Dutch National Opera and Royal Danish Opera.

In the original, a cross-national group of travellers – many European nations are represented, as we learn when in an interminable party scene each sings a national song – are stuck when their luggage is lost. Between some of them, there is rivalry for the affections of the opposite sex.

Rossini’s characters are commedia dell’arte stereotypes with names like Contessa di Folleville, Barone di Trombonok, Don Profondo, Modestina and Don Prudenzio and in this case, the heavy-handed acting matched them to a tee.

grand tableau in Imitation of François Gérard. Photo: Prudence Upton.

To be sure this is Rossini’s showpiece, there are wonderful coloratura set pieces, humorous musical references to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, a perfect sextet, a 14-part show stopper at the end of ACT I, and unctuous but magnificent aria in praise of King Charles by Russian soprano Irina Lungu as the poetess Corinna. Magic moments, but without the usual motive and momentum of opera.

Other than that what we saw was a mixture of a stage revue in which each character had a “turn” and a mishmash of art history. Giggles if you guessed the artist.

Inexplicably, the director created three levels of reality – the present day art gallery, the odd, scantily – dressed assortment of travellers and a series of three-dimensional figures stepping out of their famous portraits seen hanging on the walls.

It had Goya’s “The White Duchess”, Velasquez’s “Infanta”, Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits and Magritte’s “Son of Man”, for starters.

In one scene the English conservator Lord Sidney (Teddy Tahu Rhodes) not only falls in love with John Sargent’s “Madame X”, but enters into the painting, physically.

No doubt the idea was to move towards a grand tableau in imitation of François Gérard’s huge painting “Coronation of Charles X of France”, for which occasion the opera was commissioned in 1825, but as much of the action was set within a huge frame, the ultimate effect was to suggest that none of it mattered a jot, since it wasn’t real.

If that was the intention, it was achieved perfectly, but clever visual jokes and ham acting with so little connection with reality does not make for a satisfying evening at the opera.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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