Australian conductor Daniel Smith, for his first conducting engagement in Sydney for Opera Australia, was given a rock-star ovation and won himself a legion of admirers, as much for his enthusiastic involvement in the opera (he won the bidding during the art auction sequence) as for the scintillating performance he encouraged from both singers and orchestra.
Performed for the first time in Australia in Melbourne earlier this year, and now on its first outing in Sydney, Il Viaggio a Reims was written by Rossini in 1825, as a special occasion piece to showcase the talents of leading opera singers of the day, in celebration of the coronation of King Charles X. It was intended for only three performances, although Rossini did sanction an extra charity performance before destroying the score.
However, Rossini shared Andrew Lloyd Webber’s penchant for recycling his compositions, and interpolated many composed for Il Viaggio a Reims into his later operas, particularly Le comte Ory. As a result, much of the music in Il Viaggio a Reims has a familiar sound to it. None-the-less this opera represents Rossini at his most inventive, and the top flight cast of this present production revel in the opportunities it offers.
Originally set in an Inn occupied by a group of VIPs en route to the King’s coronation, the opera catalogues their misadventures along the way. However, for this delightful co-production between Opera Australia, the Dutch National Opera and the Royal Danish Opera, the director Damiano Michieletto, has set his version (reproduced in Sydney by Constantine Costi) in a modern day art gallery, where gallery owner, Madama Cortese (Julie Lea Goodwin in Anna Wintour mode) and her staff are busily engaged hanging a new exhibition, and arranging a lavish opening party.
The concept works a treat. Famous masterworks come to life, timetables fall behind, and actors and singers are rehearsed for a lavish pageant to celebrate the exhibition opening. The surtitles are of little use in helping follow the action, but that doesn’t matter, because the opera romps along with so many diverting highlights, it’s best to forget the destination and just enjoy the journey and the glorious singing.
The art gallery setting provides endless opportunity for unexplained events both amusing and charming. The Three Graces of Canova’s sculpture step out of their glass cabinet and join characters from famous paintings that also move around the gallery floor.
Teddy Tahu Rhodes, as Lord Sidney, pours out his passion to Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X, before bravely baring his torso to be erotically painted cobalt blue. Sian Sharp and Shanul Sharma entrapped in a painting, vainly sing advice to two young lovers quarrelling soundlessly in the gallery below them. Giorgio Caoduro, as Don Profondo, dazzled with his tongue-twisting aria listing the various possessions of the guests.
With 14 principal roles, most with their own aria, there are plenty of opportunities for bravura performances, and this superb cast, who in addition to those already mentioned, included Conal Coad, Emma Pearson, Juan de Dios Mateos, Warwick Fyfe, Jennifer Black, Luke Gabbedy, John Longmuir, Christopher Hillier, Stuart Haycock, Kathryn Radcliffe and Agnes Sarkis, don’t hold back.
But despite the competition, the most memorable aria occurs towards the end of the opera. It’s a 12 minute solo, sung with crystalline purity by soprano, Irina Lungu, accompanied, initially, simply by forte piano, as the huge cast move ever so slowly into position to form a sumptuous tableau which brings the opera to a spectacular conclusion.
This month marks the 10th anniversary of Lyndon Terracini’s tenure as Artistic Director of Opera Australia. A champion of innovation, under Terracini’s guidance, in that decade, Opera Australia has undergone many changes, including the establishment of the Handa Operas on Sydney Harbour, and the introduction of LED screen technology, which has cemented its reputation as one of the busiest and most innovative opera companies in the world.
It was a fascinating choice therefore to end the 2019 Sydney season with this entertaining production of Il Viaggio a Reims, with its bravura embrace of bygone techniques such as Pose Plastique and Tableau Vivant.
Il Viaggio A Reims
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point
Performance: Thursday 24 October 2019 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 2 November 2019
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Image: The cast of Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Il Viaggio a Reims at the Sydney Opera House – photo by Prudence Upton
Review: Bill Stephens OAM