Kirov's 'Il Viaggio a Reims': Zanything Goes

Horsing around: The Kirov production placed the orchestra onstage and Daniil Shtoda atop a steed.
Horsing around: The Kirov production placed the orchestra onstage and Daniil Shtoda atop a steed. (By Natasha Razina)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 29, 2007

Gioacchino Rossini's "Il Viaggio a Reims," presented over the weekend at the Kennedy Center Opera House by the Kirov Opera, is one weird piece -- a sort of cross between a coronation ceremony and "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."

For those who may be unfamiliar with the latter work, "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" was a 1963 film by Stanley Kramer with (in its original release) a three-hour running time and virtually no plot, but one of the largest and busiest casts ever assembled, with appearances, large or small, by Milton Berle, Buster Keaton, the Three Stooges, Jonathan Winters and Jerry Lewis, among dozens of others. Gag followed gag, stunt followed stunt, and it was gloriously all too much, leaving most spectators in a state of loopy satiety.

"Il Viaggio a Reims" ("The Voyage to Reims") gets by with a mere 15 characters, yet it is hard to think of any opera that seems both so wildly overfreighted and so determinedly, ecstatically trivial. Almost nothing happens, in the customary sense of the word: a group of multinational aristocrats, on their way to the city of Reims for the coronation of King Charles X, stop off at a country inn for high jinks and intrigue before finishing off the evening singing patriotic songs from their respective countries. And that, as they say, is that.

Making the history (if not the story) of "Il Viaggio a Reims" more interesting is that Rossini concocted his crazy opera to commemorate the actual coronation of France's King Charles X, which took place in Reims in 1825 -- a topsy-turvy take on the old cliche that "art imitates life."

After the celebration was over, Rossini disassembled "Viaggio" but, smart businessman that he was, he recycled large passages of the opera into "Le Comte Ory" (1828), one of the fizziest of his later works. It wasn't until 1984 that "Viaggio" was rediscovered, dusted off, recorded and began to take its place in the repertory (it was last heard in the Washington area at Wolf Trap in 1996).

The current production was staged by a British director, Alain Maratrat, for a joint effort by the Kirov Opera (in St. Petersburg) and Theatre du Chatelet, in Paris. It is caustic, clever and appropriately wacky, the set somehow calling to mind that ocean liner the Marx Brothers could never quite escape in "Monkey Business," complete with a gangplank into the audience.

One character wanders around demurely with flashing electrical lights under her dress, another fights a musical battle with an insistently aggressive flutist who will not quiet down, the Count di Libenskof makes his grand entry on horseback. If you were sitting on the aisle, you might have suddenly found a singer reclining on your lap. While the conception was a lively one, it all but excluded patrons in the balcony, who had no way of telling what might be going on outside their range of vision.

The score cannot be compared to that of "L'Italiana in Algeri" or "La Cenerentola," to mention only two of its obvious superiors, but it is still Rossini, and therefore contains much at which to marvel -- wit, humanity, invention, wondrously long-breathed melodies and dizzying patter songs.

No other composer uses formulas so skillfully and unapologetically. When Rossini approaches the end of an aria or ensemble, his style is so familiar that we think we can almost compose the final bars by ourselves -- and yet we take such tactile pleasure in hearing him do his familiar thing one more time! But then there are those other moments when the music veers so startlingly into unusual turf that we feel we have heard dada 100 years before dada was invented or -- as the soprano in one of Arnold Schoenberg's quartets puts it -- "breathed the air of other planets."

On Saturday, the weak link was the cast (there was to be a substantially different lineup on Sunday afternoon). A number of the singers were admirably gifted -- Larisa Yudina and Anastasia Kalagina with their burbling, brilliant coloratura voices, Daniil Shtoda with his brooding intensity, Nikolay Kamensky booming his way through the role of Don Profondo, Vladislav Uspensky as the master of ceremonies, Eduard Tsanga, Alexey Safiulin and others.

But the fact remains that the Kirov, for good and for ill, is a decidedly provincial opera company, and has no more innate authority with Rossini than, say, La Scala would with "Boris Godunov" or the Vienna State Opera with "The Ballad of Baby Doe." The easy, cosmopolitan warmth and charm we associate with this music was replaced by a hard Eastern European severity, one that was all but obscured from the audience by the vibrancy and high spirits of the acting, but was nevertheless apparent to the careful ear.

Valery Gergiev, conducting an onstage orchestra, led with his usual vigor and somewhat more care than usual, but seemed helpless to keep Rossini's music from being declaimed instead of caressed.

The Kirov will present Verdi's "Falstaff" -- another unconventional choice for this troupe -- at the Kennedy Center beginning Wednesday night.

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