Rossini Il viaggio a Reims
Paris always brought out the epicure in Rossini: in the 1820s and again, after years of debilitating illness, in the late 1850s and 1860s. It also stimulated him to special flights of creative fancy as we can hear in the late and still too little known Peches de Vieillesse, and, most lavishly of all, in this cornucopian revel. The Journey to Rheims. Written as part of the festival programme surrounding the coronation of the Bourbon Charles X in 1825, Il viaggio has some claim to being the best of all musical parties, outgunning such later heirs presumptive as Act 2 of Die Fledermaus by a considerable distance.
Though the plot if slight—an array of international grandees are gathered at an inn in Plombieres en route for the coronation in Reims—the entertainment is richly elaborated in a way which precluded easy assimilation into the standard operatic repertoire. It is for this reason that Rossini is more or less simultaneously planned to dismantle one of his finest scores. Parts of Il viaggio a Reims turn up in more accessible form for the opera-going public in Le Comte Ory; but some of Il viaggio a Reims's finest inventions, notably the great Sextet, languished unused until, remarkably, the dismembered work was reidentified and resembled by Philip Gossett and Janet Johnson in one of the several acts of musical restitution which are currently placing the Fondazione Rossini in Pesaro in the forefront of contemporary musicological achievement.
The premiere of this lavish piece de circonstance was a royal gala at the Theatre-Italien's Salle Louvois. Its success was huge and Rossini could have filled aby Parisian theatre of his choice for a substantial run had he been so minded. In the event, he played the curmudgeon, insisting the thing come off after the prescribed three performances and only agreeing to a fourth, charity performance the following September after much arm-twisting by government officials. Few composers would dream of taking a smash-hit off after four performances; but Rossini was right, of course. In the nature of things, coronations don't happen every week (and the apostrophization of Charles X is central to the design). International summitry was, and is, more in vogue; but even here we are left with the problem of the expense of mounting a work designed as a shwocase for a remarkable array of top international singers. In 1825 it was Bourbon prodigality and Rossini's name which enable Il viaggio a Reims to be mounted. Nowadays we need comparable, if different, names and resources—happily to hand in Pesaro where the present recording was made during the 1984 festival. Now it is Abbado's name which is the lure and the largesse of business sponsores and a multi-national record company.
What gives Il viaggio a Reims a further decisive dimension, invoking the new romanticism and the possibilities of the parodying of that vague, is the fact that Balocchi's libretto is an elaborate appropriation of, and partial satire on, Mme de Stael's Corinne (1808), a remarkable travelogue-cum-autobiography-cum-romantic fantasy centred on Corinne, one of the famous improvising singers of the new Romantic age. In the opera Corinna has two harp-accompanied improvisations, ecah stilling the entertainment, turning it in on itself at a crucial moment of transition. The first comes, dramatically, as the third movement of the great Sextet; the second comes before the apotheosis of Charles X at the end of the work. Each is a magical essay in the Ossianic style (Ellen's song in La donna del lago points this way) and each is magically sung on the present recording by Cecilia Gasdia, the girl whom everyone thinks of as the new Maria Callas.
Gasdia's presence in the performance is symptomatic of the talent, new or established, which Abbado and DG have been able to attract to the enterprise. The array is stunning. As the jealous rivals for the hand of the Marchesa Melibea we have Leo Nucci as the Spanish grandee and Francisco Araiza as the impulsive Russian, Conte di Libenskof. Madama Cortese, the Sybil Fawlty of the Inn at Plombieres, is sung by Katia Ricciarelli (in generally good voice here). Lucia Valentini Terrani, in brilliant form, sings Melibea and for good measure we have two Rossini veterans, Ruggero Raimondi as Don Profondo, the fanatical lover of all things antiquarian, and Enzo Dara as the harmony-loving Barone di Trombonok who launches the great Sextet, bullishly, in C major. Most of these singers have major solo scenes, too. There is a delicious duet, unaccountably missing from Le Comte Ory, for Libenskof and Melibea; a duet whose deft, sighing cabaletta must rank as one of the most engaging of all Rossini's inventions; and Raimondi has his witty disquisition on international types, a piece—forerunner of many numbers in Sullivan—which is heard to better effect here than in Robert's description of his voyage through the Fourmoutiers cellars in Le Comte Ory where the prosody is less exact.
Two singers absent from the Sextet have memorable numbers of their own. The fashion-loving and flirtatious Contessa di Folleville has a splendid aria and cabaletta in which she mourns the reported loss of a favourite bonnet in a carriage accident. The Contessa is sung by Lella Cuberli, Karajan's nominated Norma, and the piece, as she sings it, is a tour de force. Then there is Lord Sidney, the English colonel harbouring a furtive passion for Corinna. Samuel Ramey, one of the finest Rossini singers of our day, does full justice to Sidney's big aria, omitted from Le Comte Ory; and there is some outstanding obbligato flute-playing, too, by Wissam Boustany. Ramey also gives us a bold account of Rossini's splendid arrangement of God Save the King in the junketings during the final entertainment. Time and again, it comes as a revelation to here even the Ory numbers in their original garb. Nothing is grander, funnier, or sonically more glorious than the Gran Pezzo Concertato a 14 Voci in its original form.
The Pesaro performances have been recorded with great vividness by DG. I admired the LPs and was bowled over by the biting immediacy of the CDs. Applause has been edited out, rightly so, but there are some reassuring bumps and creaks from the stage and murmurs of delight can clearly be heard from the audience. In every way this production seems wonderfully 'live'; there is a sense of adventure mingled with an unmistakable relish, a joie de vivre, about the whole thing which one might expect when fine singers get together to restore to us a masterwork by one of their greatest benefactors.
Abbado's conducting is marterly. His ear for Rossini's sonorities cannot be faulted. The wind playing is exemplary and the string of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe wonderfully catch that peculiarly Rossinian sound, fire and ice at the same time. Rhythmically, Abbado is exceptionally brilliant; it is a very alert performance, passionate and precise in the Toscanini manner.
The set is a triumph of scholarship, musicianship and managerial enterprise. At the price, it is irresistible. Foie gras and champagne usually come more expensive than this.'