Review: Wolf Trap Opera’s ‘Il viaggio a Reims’

Rossini would laugh if he knew that people were still performing his opera “Il viaggio a Reims” (“The Journey to Rheims”) nearly two centuries after it was written.

It’s hardly even an opera but more a gala-cum-revue that has a patently flimsy plot (travelers are stuck in hotel, have dinner). It was written for a specific occasion (the coronation of the French king Charles X) and given four performances in 1825 — after which the composer recycled the best of its music in his later comedy “Le Comte d’Ory.”

Reviving it is not unlike bringing back a one-off TV variety show under the guise of serious theater.

“Viaggio,” though, has turned up with some regularity since its first modern production in the 1980s. The Wolf Trap Opera Company brought in a new production by David Gately — its second — Friday night at the Barns. It’s popular for some of the right reasons — it certainly has some catchy music — and some of the wrong ones. Among the latter is the fact that it offers performance opportunities for no fewer than 14 soloists, making it ideal for conservatories and companies, such as Wolf Trap, that work with young singers and want to give opportunities to as many people as possible.

The problem is that the music was written for major stars, not earnest young artists. Think of the first Three Tenors concert: It was schlocky, but the three big stars made it a guilty pleasure. Unknown singers wouldn’t have the same effect doing the same thing.

Similarly, it’s a tall order for a young singer to make something out of an overblown tragic aria in which she laments, in tones usually reserved for death and war, the loss of her character’s fashionable gowns. The fatuous Countess of Folleville, a French fashionista, gets this aria in “Viaggio,” followed by an exuberant cabaletta after she discovers that a single hat has been saved.

To her credit, the soprano Ying Fang pulled that off beautifully, managing to be funny and singing so well that you wanted to keep listening. But not every young artist has the elan to make a souffle out of so few eggs. And this is not a short opera — Wolf Trap offered it in a full three-act version that lasted more than three hours.

Wolf Trap made everything of it that it could. Gately’s delightful production moves the action to the 1920s and turns the inn into a fashionable resort hotel, run by a well-coordinated staff of Wolf Trap studio artists (as Antonio, one of the head valets, Ben Edquist showed a strikingly solid voice).

Gately also wisely kept the artists from the unfunny mugging so often seen in comic operas; playing things straight tends to make the action much funnier. There was less restraint from the orchestra pit, where the conductor, Gary Thor Wedow, sometimes overpowered the soloists — as loud as they, too, were in this small theater.

Singers arrive at Wolf Trap armed with impressive credentials, which perhaps at times keeps them from getting the basic guidance they need. Brandon Cedel, who sang the awkward British Lord Sidney, has a gorgeous voice but tended to sing in his nose, which compromised the beauty of his sound — a problem that would be easy to remedy, if anyone noticed it. (Many young singers are told that they need to “sing in the mask,” or “place” the voice at the front of their faces, and you can hear a lot of nasal singing on opera stages as a result.)

Others warmed to their roles, like Juan José de León, who as the Russian Count Libenskof at first sounded pushed and raspy but turned out to have an ardent tenor as he sang his way into the evening. Ryan Speedo Green, who sang Don Profondo with a warm mien and sound, seems fully ready for a big career; Maya Lahyani showed a promising dark contralto-colored mezzo as the Polish Marquise Melibea; and Andrea Carroll did honorably in the tricky role of the poet Corinna, who has to sing so beautifully as to make everyone delirious. She might not quite have managed that, but she did some nice things with her long, final show-stopping aria.

It’s an evening that offers a lot of fun and a lot of good intentions, and it can get a little long. But then again, that could be said of many operas, and this production did more right than most.

“Il viaggio a Reims” has a final performance Saturday at 7 at the Wolf Trap Barns.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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