ROSSINI Il viaggio a Reims
‘This opera is a feast’ was Stendhal’s judgement on Il viaggio a Reims, though this sophisticated entertainment, written at the time of Charles X’s coronation in Reims in 1825, was never, strictly speaking, an opera.
Rossini, who thought it a dead duck commercially, quickly withdrew it and reused some of its best music for a real comic opera, Le comte Ory (Paris, 1828). Similarly, after the entertainment’s rediscovery and reassembly by Janet Johnson and Philip Gossett, no one thought that the 1984 Pesaro Festival production, and the superlative Abbado recording which derived from it, would readily be repeated. Not the least of the challenges is that Il viaggio – part vocal showcase, part sardonic take on European nationalism and the Bourbon dynasty itself – needs 13 front-rank singers, preferably Italian.
Yet, surprisingly, it did take on a new life. While a number of leading opera houses staged it, and music conservatoires used it as graduate entertainment, director Dario Fo retained the music but rewrote the text as an unashamedly anti-royalist tract.
Recorded at the ‘Rossini in Wildbad’ Festival in 2014 as part of the re-dedication of Wildbad’s Royal Kurtheater, the new Naxos set is part of that unexpected afterlife. The Wildbad cast is a decent one, with better tenors than Pesaro – Wildbad’s Maxim Mironov clearly edges out Pesaro’s Francisco Araiza as the jealous Russian Count Libenskof – and a quintet of basses and bass-baritones who give Pesaro’s formidable team of Ramey, Raimondi, Dara, Nucci and Surjan a decent run for its money.
It’s on the distaff side that the new set is outclassed, not because the Wildbad soloists are in any way inadequate but because the Pesaro women are pretty well matchless, be it Cecilia Gasdia as the improvising poetess Corinna or Katia Ricciarelli, no less, as the innkeeper Madama Cortese.
Wildbad’s Laura Giordano is perhaps too much the soubrette to be the perfect Corinna and is not ideally balanced in her first aria, which is directed to be overheard ‘from within’. Wildbad, however, plays a fuller text. Too full, you might think, in Corinna’s great concluding improvisation where we get all five stanzas at 11 minutes rather than the three at six minutes which Pesaro provides. But Giordano does well here, recorded separately, I suspect. The Wildbad performance also includes a short chorus within the work’s grand finale that has been authenticated since the publication of the 1983 critical edition.
The South-West German Radio recording treats the performance ‘as found’. It’s good but inevitably it’s a bit more rough-and-ready than the 1984 Deutsche Grammophon version, which brings studio polish to what was also a live event.
On the Pesaro set Abbado and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe deliver one of the most vital and refined of all Rossini performances on record. It will probably not be surpassed, but Wildbad’s Antonino Fogliani leads a staging that doesn’t hang fire for a moment. The piano-accompanied recitatives are vividly delivered; and though the pressures of live performance cause the occasional over-emphasis or loss of pitch, the performance has a vividness and theatrical ‘carry’ that confirm that Il viaggio is indeed ‘a feast’.