"The Journey to Rheims," the opening item in the Wolf Trap Opera Company's 1990 season, is really a variety show thinly disguised as an opera about the 1820s equivalent of the jet set. It is also an ideal piece of music for a company like this, which has recruited 13 of America's best young singers in auditions across the country and now requires material to exercise, develop and show off their talents. The production in the Barns of Wolf Trap (with repeat performances tonight and Monday) is a pure delight.
"Il Viaggio a Reims," dating from 1825 when Gioacchino Rossini had already moved to Paris, was the last comedy he composed in Italian and one of the last five operas he composed before going into his long retirement. It was written as a pie`ce d'occasion for the coronation of Charles X, the last Bourbon king of France, in 1825, and it nearly disappeared after a few performances in that year. Rossini withdrew it from performance and recycled a lot of its music into "Le Comte Ory" a few years later. The rest of it sank into oblivion, a footnote in books about opera, until the 1980s, when the scattered pieces of the score were reassembled and published by a team of musicologists -- fortunately because the material was too good to be forgotten entirely.
"Everything in 'Il Viaggio' is long, and appeared even more so, owing to the lack of action in the libretto," wrote Rossini's biographer Francis Toye who had, of course, never seen a performance. In the Wolf Trap production, which is sung in Andrew Porter's useful English translation, everything moves along briskly and there is plenty of action, although nothing actually gets done.
The opera is set in an inn, the Golden Fleur de Lys, about a day's journey from Rheims, where Charles is to be crowned. Members of the nobility from all over Europe have gathered there, planning to go to the coronation together. Meanwhile, they engage in their usual pastimes -- love affairs, challenges to duels, showing off their wardrobes and gossiping. Also present is a Roman poetess, Corinna, who improvises songs to the accompaniment of a harp. The situation gives them (and the inn's staff) abundant opportunities for arias, choruses, duets and large ensemble pieces expressing love, jealousy, rage, despair -- the whole range of operatic attitudes, more or less prefabricated without the need to fit them into a standard plot. It also gives Rossini a chance to use all the standard devices, styles and techniques of bel canto opera in the kind of perfect parody that can be produced only by a supreme master of the thing being parodied.
All the highlights are too numerous to mention, but four of the most memorable are:
A grand solo scene running through all the nuances of rage, despair and (at last) consolation, impressively sung by the Comtesse de Folleville (Laura Lamport) after she learns that a coach has overturned and her wardrobe hasbeen ruined.
A catalogue of notable items that each member of the party has in his or her luggage, with appropriate ethnic references and snide observations, sung by the scholar Don Profondo (Richard Zeller).
A grand finale, in which representatives of Germany, Poland, Russia, Spain, England, France, Switzerland and Rome sing toasts in their national melodies ("Deutschland uber alles" and "God Save the King" will be recognized, as will the spectacular bel canto yodeling in the Swiss item).
An Act 2 finale to end all Act 2 finales, recalling other Rossini efforts of this kind except that it is written in 14-part harmony and counterpoint. Rossini calls this a "gran pezzo concertato a quattordici voci" ("grand concerted piece for 14 voices"). The technical term for it in English would be "quatuordecimet" on the analogy of "sextet" or "octet," but you won't find the word in the Oxford English Dictionary, presumably because there aren't many quatuordecimets around to talk about. By any name, however, it is an impressive moment.
Among excellent singers too numerous to mention, Heidi Jones is perfectly cast as the owner of the inn; Tichina Vaughn is even more impressive than she was last year; Charles Workman is as effective in comic acting as in singing, John Daniecki and Mark Oswald make splendid romantic and vocal adversaries even if their duel never quite happens, and good singing is heard from Kelly Anderson, Angela Randell and Henry Runey. Stage director Christopher Mattaliano makes the production sparkle, with notable assistance from the set design of Allen Moyer and costumes by James Scott. Steven Mercurio's conducting is precise and stylish.