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A Gourmet Delight

State Theatre
05/24/2019 -  & May 28, 30 May, June 1, 2019
Gioacchino Rossini: Il viaggio a Reims
Ruth Iniesta (Corinna), Emma Pearson (Contessa di Folleville), Julie Lea Goodwin (Madama Cortese), Sian Sharp (Marchesa Melibea), Juan de Dios Mateos (Cavalier Belfiore), Shanul Sharma (Conte de Libenskof), Warwick Fyfe (Barone de Trombonok), Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Lord Sidney), Giorgio Caoduro (Don Profondo), Jennifer Black (Maddalena), Luke Gabbedy (Don Alvaro), Conal Coad (Don Prudenzio), John Longmuir (Don Luigino), Christopher Hillier (Antonio), Kathryn Radcliffe (Delia), Agnes Sarkis (Modestina), Stuart Haycock (Zefirino)
Opera Australia Chorus, Anthony Hunt (Chorus Master & Fortepiano), Orchestra Victoria, Daniel Smith (Conductor)
Damiano Michieletto (Director), Meisje Barbara Hummel (Revival Director), Paolo Fantin (Set Designer), Carla Teti (Costume Designer), Alessandro Carletti (Lighting Designer)

(© Jeff Busby)

This opera is rarely staged because of the many difficulties inherent in its structure and content. Written for a specific occasion – the Coronation of Charles X of France in 1825 – it was hurriedly constructed around a scant libretto which results in its having very little plot on which to base a stage production. The fearsome requirements of the principal casting represent a further enormous challenge as does the length and formal structure of the piece. That Maestro Rossini never intended it to live beyond its originally scheduled few performances is argued by musicologists citing his self-quoting of many of the finer solo numbers into the 1828 Le Comte Ory. The Maestro however, personally guarded the original manuscript until his death in Paris when it passed into private hands at the gift his then wife. It was not until the 1970’s that it resurfaced in Rome and not until the early 1980’s that the opera was produced at the Pesaro Festival in a critical edition by the Fondazione Rossini.

Strictly speaking this is not an opera at all but a cantata scenica, or a selection of scenes and musical numbers loosely based around a theme. And herein lays the dilemma for a modern producer: whether to develop around these scenes a semblance of plot for the clearer understanding of the modern audience or to attempt to overlay the original piece with a new and totally different meaning. In Balocchi’s original libretto, the setting is the Inn of the Golden Lily (the royal insignia of France) and the ‘plot’ revolves around a series of scenes for each of a group of travellers headed towards Reims for the Coronation. In this version, the setting is the Golden Lily Art Gallery under the tyrannical direction of Madama Cortese. A major exhibition is being prepared, featuring numerous well-known art works which are hilariously brought to life and which culminates in the assemblage of a representation of the painting “Coronation of Charles X of France” by François Gérard.

What does not alter however is the towering creative genius of Rossini, the musician and impresario and his innate sense of theatrical occasion generated through this piece. It is by any measure an enormous undertaking; the Mt Everest of Rossini’s œuvre and one which has daunted many opera companies despite the extravagant lavishing of stunning musical numbers and intricate orchestration. The score literally bounces along, creating complex and intertwined musical shapes out of every melody line. Solos become duets, trios and larger ensembles and in the nineteenth scene, evolve into the extraordinary Grand Concert for fourteen voices which is sung a capella.

It is an injustice not to mention each performer individually but so much of the opera is elaborate ensemble work that the overall music-making deserves comment. Together, the voices worked miracles and produced cheers of delight and avid applause throughout. Warwick Fyfe as the Baron Trombonok was sensational, his glorious baritone alongside his astonishingly comic stage persona were a winning combination. Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Lord Sidney lent rich authority to the vocal line as did Conal Coad as Don Prudenzio the harassed and harried gallery director.

Spanish soprano Ruth Iniesta in her Opera Australia debut gave a striking performance as Corinna. Her early off-stage voice being powerful enough to extend well beyond the dense scenery, she brought the theatre and the show to a complete stand-still with her rendition of the centre piece of the opera, the ode to King Charles and the plea for a unified Europe “All’ombra amena”. Giorgio Caoduro’s Don Profondo was wonderfully funny including an outrageous auction scene wherein he hammed it up mercilessly while delivering a confident and skilful vocal performance. American mezzo Jennifer Black was another performer who made her OA debut in this performance. She brings a strong repertoire of experience to this role and delivered self-assuredly a convincing portrait of the brow-beaten assistant whom nobody takes seriously. It was an amusing and clever interpretation.

The strength of female voices in OA was well-represented by Sian Sharp, Julie Lee Goodwin, and Emma Pearson. Ms Pearson’s Contessa gave this young artist an opportunity to tackle with vigour several major solos and a large number of ensembles while displaying adept stage skills and athleticism. Minor roles sung by Agnes Sarkis and Kathryn Radcliffe were confidently handled and rounded out a well-balanced cast of female voices.

Young tenors Juan de Dios Mateos making his OA debut and Shanul Sharma who has featured in several previous productions gave creditable performances. The men of the company Luke Gabbedy, John Longmuir, Christopher Hillier and Stuart Haycock were uniformly strong in the minor supporting roles.

An important debut was also made at this performance by young Australian conductor Daniel Smith. His long list of prizes and awards sees him busily engaged in Europe, Russia, Scandinavia and beyond. He led a noble performance by Orchestra Victoria and the OA Chorus in which they and he kept the massive score in a state of perpetual motion never lagging under the weight of its sheer size and volume. The reception for Maestro Smith was particularly warm and one hopes to see and hear more of him with OA in future seasons.

One of the more striking aspects of this show was the design. On vast, white, empty gallery walls, images come to life through the ingenious costumes of Carla Teti. The simplicity and minimalism of the gallery space contrasts perfectly with the elaborate music and vocal lines producing a perfect ‘canvas’ on which to present the newly imagined ‘plot’ of what happens in the gallery “after dark”. It is clever, witty and riotously funny. The design of this production is a work of theatrical brilliance.

If the best time to leave a party is when it is in full swing, this opera ends OA’s Autumn Season on an exceptionally high note. This is an immensely clever and entertaining production which had the capacity and youthful audience variously roaring with laughter or gasping in astonishment. It is a gourmet feast of Rossini at his dazzling best, a confection of infectious melodies eye-popping costumes and hilarious stage business. Such a rarity deserves to be seen again and again.

Gregory Pritchard



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