Few composers so consistently knew what they were doing as the ever-savvy Gioachino Rossini. But with
Il Viaggio a Reims
, could he have known he was writing a perfect summer beach opera? One that fulfills as the more-fun-than-substance requirements of a beach novel?
Il Viaggio a Reims was written for the coronation of Charles X in 1825, withdrawn by the composer for musical recycling purposes, reassembled in the 1970s, and re-premiered in 1984. Now, a vocally scintillating video arrives as part of the Bryn Mawr Film Institute's European opera series with a 1 p.m. showing on Sunday - and in a production that, as seen at the Wednesday screening, goes far to explain the piece's quirks.
Not that quirks are bad. The Bryn Mawr series is a window on operatic Europe, a particularly welcome break from the mostly standard repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera's simulcasts, now on summer hiatus.
Forthcoming is a reportedly acrobatic new Das Rheingold from Spain, a Bolshoi Opera production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (provocative in ways that prompted retired Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya to boycott the company), and Berlioz's rarely seen comedy Benvenuto Cellini from the Salzburg Festival.
However light, Il Viaggio isn't a mere romp, like some Rossini comedies. The opera demands great singers but doesn't give anybody the spotlight for long. It's virtually plotless, definitely one of Rossini's less theatrically sound creations, but it still needs a full staging to account for itself, particularly since it pokes fun at the nationalities of delegates sent to the French coronation. It's best considered in the spirit of those Stephen Sondheim compilation shows such as Putting It Together - ensemble pieces that don't require ensemble cohesion and with music that tends to be all peaks and no valleys.
The La Scala production, with clean, expansive sets by Italian architect Gae Aulenti and three video screens, hails from Il Viaggio's 1984 rebirth. And unlike some later stagings that make more of the opera's setting in a spa (with all the anything-can-happen atmosphere that implies), this production doesn't disguise what the opera actually is: an excuse for great singing punctuated by the Charles X coronation reenacted on video screen, climaxing with the whole procession invading the theater at the opera's conclusion.
Though one might argue that the opera's production history has moved beyond something this basic, it plays beautifully on camera (star turns usually do) and is a good reading of a work that barely bothers with story-advancing recitatives. In fact, you can duck out to the bathroom or be delayed by suburban traffic (as I was) and not feel you've missed anything crucial.
Add to that the highly stylized costumes that don't pretend to be rooted in reality and the audience is relieved from having to accept some absurd basic operatic premise. Everybody is in on the jokes - whether they're about personality types of the period or how we now view the opera itself. And luckily, there's a minimum of the usual opera-buffa physical comedy that tends to clutter up Rossini productions (and isn't really funny).
The arias were written for the greatest singers of Rossini's day, including Giuditta Pasta (perhaps the greatest of all), who was given the reverent climactic aria, accompanied only by harp and containing one of the composer's finest lyrical inspirations. The Scala cast features singers well-known in America, such as Patrizia Ciofi, and ones that should be better known, such as Annick Massis. (Others include Carmela Remigio and Alastair Miles.) All are up to the vocal acrobatics.
Much more important, though, is that most of them have a keen sense of the larger meaning behind them. On a purely musical level, no run of notes is too hectic for the singer to also point out subtle variations in rhythm or sequential repetition. There were a few walkouts on Wednesday: Sometimes, even a credulity-straining opera plot is better than none at all. But speaking as somebody who normally doesn't travel for Rossini, the music is truly lovable. Placing the production at a moment in history, however roughly, gives the piece an honesty that higher-concept productions can't deliver.
June / Das Rheingold
By Richard Wagner. Conducted by Zubin Mehta, directed by Carlos Padrissa and La Fura dels Baus.
7 p.m. Wednesday; 1 p.m. June 28
Jul y / Eugene Onegin
By Piotr Tchaikovsky. Conducted by Alexander Vernikov, directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov at L'Opera National de Paris. 1 p.m. July 12
August / Benvenuto Cellini
By Hector Berlioz. Conducted by Philipp Stolzl, directed by Valery Gergiev at the Salzburg Festival.
1 p.m. Aug. 9
Information: 610-527-9898, www.BrynMawrFilm.orgEndText