Nearly 200 years after its premiere in Paris in 1825, Rossini’s grand musical showcase Il Viaggio a Reims finally makes its Australian debut in suitably lavish style while also having tremendous fun with its lightweight story of vacuous international elites. Opera Australia fills no less than 14 principal roles with fine, often fabulous singers who can work the production’s comedy too. Indeed, even the conductor contributed to the laughs in this wonderfully entertaining spectacular.

The cast of Il Viaggio a Reims. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Il Viaggio a Reims was commissioned as part of the festivities for the coronation of French king Charles X. The simple story – which was designed to celebrate the new monarch, showcase some of the greatest voices of the age, and establish Rossini’s genius in France – centres on numerous European noblemen and women on their way to the coronation in Reims. They gather at an inn, where their disagreements and romantic rivalries represent Europe’s fractured state during this era. When a lack of fresh horses prevent them from continuing to their destination, they decide to hold a feast during which both the king and the banqueters’ various nations are honoured – an allegory for the peace Europe yearned for.

Rossini only authorised a handful of performances at the time, and the score was lost before finally being pieced together and performed once again in the 1980s. A massive undertaking, it has only been rarely staged since, and required the combined resources of Opera Australia, the Dutch National Opera and the Royal Danish Opera for this 2015 production created by Damiano Michieletto (Meisje Barbara Hummel directs this Melbourne season).

Giorgio Caoduro and Conal Coad. Photograph © Jeff Busby

The setting has been transferred to a modern-day art gallery, where the travellers spend much of their time in a mix of early 19th century finery and underwear before finally getting thoroughly gussied up to become the grand finale’s living painting. Before that extraordinary spectacle, several actors bring the gallery’s other famous artworks to life, including a Frida Kahlo self-portrait and a jerky Keith Haring figure, while the character of Lord Sidney has an amazingly interactive encounter with one of Whistler’s beauties.

The new setting sometimes makes good sense, such as switching innkeeper for gallery director, while at other times it’s quite a stretch between action and libretto, but with such a frivolous story it hardly matters. In fact this re-imagining works for the very reason that it is slightly bonkers, embracing Il Viaggio a Reims’ inextricable link to a largely forgotten king with comic, at times surreal, bravura.

Carla Teti’s costumes are eye-popping, including an abundance of period flamboyance, the embodiment of one of Picasso’s fractured female portraits, and the supremely chic gallery director’s ensemble. Paolo Fantin’s set is among the most monumental and exciting that Opera Australia has mounted on the State Theatre’s huge stage in recent times. The vast frames that occasionally surround the cast create visual drama, especially for the finale’s grand tableau, and also play with reality and artifice.

The cast of Il Viaggio a Reims. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Supported by the Opera Australia Chorus, who play an army of gallery blue-collar workers with their usual well rehearsed excellence, the principal and supporting cast is not far behind them in number. The former, lined up across the stage for Rossini’s audacious concertato for 14 voices at the end of Act II, is an operatic tour de force we may never experience the likes of again.

Stand-outs among that 14, comprising three sopranos, two tenors, four baritones, four basses and a contralto, include Ruth Iniesta, the Spanish soprano who is a late illness-related replacement for the role of Corinna. Her bright, perfectly controlled coloratura was superb. The high tessitura and lovely Italian diction of Indian-Australian tenor Shanul Sharma (Count Libenskof) impressed, while New-Zealand-Australian Teddy Tahu Rhodes (Lord Sidney) showed that his rich bass is as beautiful as ever. This much-loved Don Giovanni is still taking his shirt off for art’s sake too.

Ruth Iniesta. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Bravo Giorgio Caoduro, the Italian baritone who not only nailed the fast-paced patter of Don Profundo’s listing of the travellers’ treasured possessions. He also carried off the comic challenge of playing him as an art auctioneer, dealing with bidders planted in the auditorium, before finally awarding the final item to the conductor, Daniel Smith.

In his Opera Australia debut, the young Australian took it all his stride, helping to make this one of opening night’s most entertaining moments. In his more traditional role of conducting Orchestra Victoria, Smith was even more adept, conjuring a lively, luscious performance of Rossini’s ostentatious score. Megan Reeve’s harp solo was sublime.

While not every singer was outstanding, the overall standard of performance was very pleasing. Together with a production that amazed and delighted, this was a memorable Australian premiere for Rossini’s long-lost wonder.

Il viaggio a Reims plays at the State Theatre, Melbourne, until June 1, and the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney, October 24 – November 2

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