Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims is a curious work. It was written as part of the celebrations for the coronation of Charles X of France, a leading contender in a relatively large field for the title of “most utterly useless king of France”. It doesn’t really have a plot and, in a sense, is a three hour riff on “An Englishman, a Frenchman and a German go into a bar”. It also has a huge cast; twenty solo roles of which ten or twelve are quite substantial and require no little virtuosity. It’s small wonder that it’s not seen all that often.
Sergi Belbel’s 2003 production for Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu definitely makes the most of what is to be had. He sets the first two acts around 1900 in a spa hotel. The principal characters wear bathing costumes in their national colours and there’s plenty of eye candy. What the singers can’t provide is supplied by some very fit supers of both sexes who function as masseurs, pool attendants and manicurists. Act 3 moves us to a house party in Paris which serves as the backdrop for the performance of appropriately national songs by all the characters, notably versions of Deutschland über Alles and God Save the King with new words emphasising international harmony and peace. In the final scene it all gets a bit darker. As the poetess Corinna “improvises” a piece on the glory and peace that the new reign will bring we get a series of projections of the horrors of the 20th century (including the Chas/Di wedding). The “European project” is not all sweetness and light. I found the whole thing really quite engaging.
This being Rossini there’s not a whole lot of emotional depth in the music though much of it is skilful and pretty and it gives all the soloists plenty of chances to show off both in individual set pieces and in fiendishly intricate ensembles. Given the number of singers around the permutations are effectively unlimited. Everybody is well up to to their role. The full cast is below but I’d single out the Corinna of Elena de la Merced. This is the role originally written for Giuditta Pasta and, of course, Rossini was very fond of Pasta. Lots of really high and intricate coloratura well executed here. I also liked the ardent and Italianate tenor of Kenneth arver as Libenskof, the smoky mezzo of Paula Rasmussen as the Polish marchesa and the excellent comic acting skills of Enzo Dara as the German, Trombonok. But really it is tightly directed ensemble work that makes this succeed, good as individual performances are Much credit there to conductor Jesús López Cobos. The chorus and orchestra are pretty decent too.
Technically this is a pretty good effort. I really liked Toni Bargalló’s video direction. He’s not afraid of long shots and chooses his angles well. The picture is good quality 16:9 and the DTS 5.1 soundtrack is very realistic (There are LPCM and Dolby 5.1 options too). Arguably it’s too realistic as the dynamic range is extreme and occasionally a singer is balanced a long way back. I’m sure that’s how it sounded in the house but once or twice I wouldn’t have minded them using the wonders of technology to boost the volume up selectively! There are English, French, Spanish and Italian subtitles. The English only booklet contains a longish and useful essay by the director.
Here’s the full cast: