viaggio_reimsAmong the ten musical feasts that Paris staged to celebrate the coronation of the last Bourbon king, Charles X, in 1825, Il viaggio a Reims by Gioachino Rossini had undoubtedly the highest profile. Others, including La Route de Reims, a pastiche of Mozart music, are now long forgotten, and Rossini’s score once seriously risked suffering the same fate.

Il viaggio a Reims was both the first opera Rossini wrote for a Parisian theater and his very last score composed to an Italian libretto. It received its premiere on June 19, 1825 with a cast starring some of the most legendary names of 19th century opera: Laure Cinti (also first interpreter of all the main soprano roles in his French operas), Ester Mombelli, Marco Bordogni, Domenico Donzelli, and, prima inter pares, Giuditta Pasta.

Created for a very specific occasion, the “cantata scenica” (as Rossini named it) was performed only three more times that summer. As it was conceived as a “pièce de circonstance,” the composer never expected it to be revived again, but, fully aware of the extremely high quality of the score’s music, neither was he prepared to see it sink into oblivion. Three years later he cannibalized almost half of it for Le Comte Ory.

Before the parts not recycled in Le Comte Ory were fortuitously discovered in the 1970s, Il viaggio a Reims was thought as lost; probably influenced by the knowledge of its occasional nature, common opinion widely considered it as one of Rossini’s minor efforts. The dominant perception was that its best parts had been after all incorporated into the latter opera.

As it turned out, most of the music that did not make it into Le Comte Ory is on the contrary the most innovative and original of the entire score, such as the Sestetto and the Finale, and many modern musicologists have come to acknowledge that the parts reused in the French opera are dramatically more effective in their original place. One example will suffice: the magnificently expressive music of the second and third sections of lovelorn Lord Sidney’s long aria in Il viaggio a Reims may sound not entirely appropriate to the reprimands of a Medieval libertine’s tutor.

The particular care Rossini lavished on this opera is demonstrated by the sheer audacity and invention of its nine monumentally complex musical numbers. Uncharacteristically, he also wrote every single recitative, and made minimal use of tunes imported from his previous works; the incipit of Corinna’s first aria within the Sestetto will sound familiar to those who have been recently listening to Armida, as it is the same melody of Carlo and Ubaldo’s duet “Come l’aurette placide”

The plot is disarmingly simple: a number of wealthy European bon-vivants are gathered in an upscale thermal hotel in Plombières, idly waiting to leave for Rheims to attend Charles’ coronation. They receive the bad news that no horses or carriages are to be found. Their despair is however short-lived, as they decide to later join the celebrations in Paris. This frame serves to show them engaging in love skirmishes, bickering, reconciliations, as well as to acknowledge their own heritage.

The Spanish Don Alvaro and the Russian Count Libenskof fight over the Polish Marquise Malibea; the English Lord Sidney yearns for the Roman poetess Corinna; the French Chevalier Belfiore is constantly trying to refine his power of seduction, and his compatriot the Marquise de Folleville is only concerned about her hats and gowns. An Italian collector of antiquities, Don Profondo, and a German baron, Barone di Trombonok (who is also an amateur musicologist) provide further comic relief. The Tyrolean hôtelière, Madama Cortese functions as a link among them.

It is easy to notice how such a premise makes allowances for stage directors to give free rein to their inventiveness. This production, staged at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu in 2003, proceeds on the right track for most of the time, only to go spectacularly adrift in its final half hour.

Director Sergi Belbel moves the action to the period immediately preceding World War One, with sets and costumes redolent of a Thomas Mann novel; I suppose the point is to show a fatuous world on the verge of collapse. The conductor enters from the stage wearing a robe and descends into the pit as if into a swimming pool. The rich patrons are constantly pampered, massaged, manicured; the singers, who for the most part do not definitely belong to the categories of barihunks, hunkentenors or sylph sopranos, demonstrate remarkable lack of vanity and team spirit, showing up on stage in various degrees of undress.

The action moves along amusingly and wittily until about half hour from the end, when it takes a much darker turn: the ballet company hired by Trombonok to entertain the rich patrons recreates the French revolution, ending it with a guillotined wigged head rolling among the horrified guests. During Corinna’s final aria, a hymn of praise to the new king, Belbel projects on the background a varied assortment of photographs ranging from Napoleon, concentration camps, Hitler, Stalin, immigrants, the naked “Napalm” girl, Lady Diana and ending with a close-up of George W. Bush. It is an unwarranted low strike, completely unnecessary in its ham-fisted obviousness.

One of the most daunting problems in performing this opera is the astonishing number of true virtuosos it requires: all the principal roles (three sopranos, one contralto, two tenors, two basses — as well two less demanding baritones) call for extremely agile voices well versed in the most intricate Rossinian coloratura and near-impossible “canto di sbalzo” (singing characterized by huge intervals).

The Liceu cast leaves a lot to be desired. Kenneth Tarver’s tenor (Conte Libenskof) sounds dry and stiff, and Paula Rasmussen’s mezzo-soprano (Marchesa Melibea) is generally unfocused. Both come to grief with the pyrotechnical nature of their music.

Maria Bayo (Madama Cortese), once a lovely bel canto soprano, is here in clear decline, showing manifest signs of strain in the upper register. I would describe Mariola Cantarero as a competent, if not exactly stupefying, Contessa di Folleville. Her big double aria is one of the opera’s principal achievements, with its dissonance between the loftiness of the music, typical of an opera seria, and the frivolity of the dramatic cause (the loss of her luggage). Ms. Cantarero, unlike other interpreters of the role (Lella Cuberla reigns supreme here) fails to highlight this contrast, allowing such a theatrical moment to go unexploited.

Simon Orfila (Lord Sidney) incessantly struggles with the fireworks of his long tripartite aria. He simply does not possess the technical equipment to face one of the most complex and demanding pieces Rossini ever wrote for a bass, a 15 minute long aria with flute obbligato.

Bass Nicola Ulivieri (Don Prudenzio) distinguishes himself for his expert use of patter singing; Enzo Dara, albeit with obvious diminished vocal resources, still shows why he was the leading buffo for at least two decades. Soprano Elena de la Merced (Corinna) and tenor Josep Bros (Cavalier Belfiore) acquit themselves admirably in their high-lying music, and their big duet was for me the pinnacle of the performance.

Jesus Lopez-Cobos has the right feel for this repertoire. His conducting shows rhythmic vivacity, flexible accompaniments, delightful dynamics and an extraordinary ability to highlight the richness of the instruments. He succeeds in establishing the right equilibrium between the bouncy, sparkling parts of the score and its more romantic, rhapsodic moments.

One would wish the Liceu had assembled a more adroit cast for Maestro Lopez-Cobos.

The ArtHaus Musik DVD, cleverly directed by Toni Bargalló, contains an extremely informative booklet.