Michael Tanner

Talent show | 28 July 2012

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Il viaggio a Reims

Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera season concluded, as is now customary, with an evening in which the participants in what used to be the Vilar Young Artists programme, in the light of events renamed the Jette Parker Young Artists, are paraded to show their progress. They make a truly international team, as the slip inside the programme indicated: ‘Ji-Min Park has withdrawn...the role of Il Conte di Libenskof will be sung by Ji Hyun Kim...the role of Zefirino...will now be sung by ZhengZhong Zhou.’ For the first time the programme consisted of a single work; previously it has been made up of excerpts from several. This one was chosen, needless to say, in an Olympic spirit, for which no opera is better suited than Rossini’s Il viaggio a Reims, which has a cast of 18 characters, and deals with their passing the time while they wait for transport (isn’t that sailing a bit close to the wind?) to take them to Rheims for the coronation of Charles X. Naturally, the characters come from a smaller segment of the world than the singers who portray them, but one gets the spirit of the thing.

Il viaggio is a late opera of Rossini’s, and being an occasional piece, the composer reused a considerable amount of it in Le Comte Ory. Il viaggio was lost for well over a century, and parts were only discovered in the 1970s, and it was performed, and twice recorded, under Abbado with glittering casts. But I found the cast at the Royal Opera this time round (it was produced there in the 1980s) just as satisfactory. In fact it constitutes a tribute to the shrewdness of whoever chose them in the first place that so many of them are now familiar names in the operatic world, and several more should be.

Rossini is, of course, a composer whose demands on his singers are highly specialised. As a non-fan of most coloratura singing, I wondered at times whether the composer’s music didn’t deserve a place among the competitions of the Olympics rather than in the opera house. His coloratura can be expressive, but for the most part it seems to me to be appropriately judged by athletic rather than aesthetic criteria, a view which I’m sure Rossini would have enjoyed endorsing. That his peculiar kind of strenuousness was so well served in this performance — I wonder why there was only one? — is a tribute to the singers, but supposing a mature Mozart opera, or one by Verdi, or Wagner, or Richard Strauss, or Puccini had been chosen, would the results have been as impressive? I don’t know, though in the case of at least Verdi and Wagner the answer seems obviously negative, or we would be getting better casts when their operas are given.

In the case of one of the singers, Marina Poplavskaya, who sang what I suppose is the central role of Corinna (Il viaggio is partly derived from and a send-up of Mme de Staël’s once-famous novel Corinne), we are very familiar with her in a wide variety of roles, in many of which I have found her rather passive. Rossini doesn’t give his singers much chance of passivity, though, and she showed herself to be accomplished in a repertoire she isn’t often seen in.

Another of the big names, and growing bigger all the time, is Matthew Rose, also a versatile artist, and always, in my experience, completely identified with his roles. He will be next season’s Sarastro at the Royal Opera, and should soon be singing the black bass roles in Wagner. He, too, as Milord Sidney, revealed his versatility. And so on, with Ailish Tynan, Jacques Imbrailo, and the rest, and also the conductor Daniele Rustioni, who clearly did think he was taking part in an Olympic event, probably the high jump. There was a prodigious quantity of talent on display, and though it was a concert performance, it afforded me more pleasure than almost any of the staged operas that I have seen at Covent Garden in the past season.

The season began well, with Puccini’s Il trittico, directed by Richard Jones and conducted by Antonio Pappano; and ended with a noble if only partially successful production of the great neglected Les Troyens, again conducted by Pappano and directed by the increasingly less interesting David McVicar. In between has already become, for me, a blur of mediocrity, disappointment and routine, with only John Eliot Gardiner’s conducting of Rigoletto standing out as a remarkable, passionate account of a great familiar piece.

Why does one come out of the Royal Opera so often wondering why an at least decent collection of performers in a work one loves has made so dim an impression? It’s not, almost ever, because some pieces just become too familiar, as the Rigoletto shows. Whatever the answer, probably quite a complex one, the question is one that I’m not alone in raising. Here’s to the next season.