Taking the waters: Il Viaggio a Reims at the Gran Teatre del Liceu

Rossini – Il viaggio a Reims

Corinna – Irina Lungu
La Marchesa Melibea – Marina Viotti
La Contessa di Folleville – Sabina Puértolas
Madame Cortese – Ruth Iniesta
Il Cavaliere Belfiore – Taylor Stayton
Il Conte di Libenskof – Lawrence Brownlee
Lord Sidney – Roberto Tagliavini
Don Profondo – Pietro Spagnoli
Il Barone di Trombonok – Carlos Chausson
Don Alvaro – Gurgen Baveyan
Don Prudenzio – Alessio Cacciamani
Don Luigino – Jorge Franco
Delia – Paula Sánchez-Valverde
Maddalena – Marzia Marzo
Modestina – Tamara Gura
Zefirino – Beñat Egiarte
Antonio – Carles Pachón
Gelsomino – Beñat Egiarte

Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu / Giacomo Sagripanti.
Stage director – Emilio Sagi.

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Catalonia.  Friday, September 15th, 2017.

This run of Il viaggio a Reims was dedicated to the victims of the August terror attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils.  A message before the performance outlined the house’s belief in the ability of art to bring peace.  Indeed with its call for ‘fraterno amor’ and its pan-European gathering, Viaggio is a reflection of the magic that can happen when people come together to make music.  Combined with Rossini’s fabulous showcase for the miracles of the human voice, tonight was a fitting reminder of the difference that music can make in making the world a better place.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

The production was the work of Emilio Sagi.  A co-production with Madrid’s Teatro Real, it was imported from the Pesaro Rossini Festival.  It was efficient enough and told the story relatively straight.  The guests are clearly taking the waters and the action takes place on a simple boardwalk that serves as the single set throughout.  At the start, it is suggested that all the characters are apparently working at the spa, wearing name tags.  Then we see them given drugs by Don Prudenzio.  I thought, at first, that it would be the start of a staging based on sanatorium patients acting out the characters of the opera as therapy – but this was an idea that was swiftly dropped and never seen again.  Personenregie consisted of characters addressing the front more than each other and there seemed initially to be very little chemistry between them.  And then, in the Melibea/Libenskof duet something happened.  Suddenly, Marina Viotti and Lawrence Brownlee turned a routine production into something very special.  We saw two people who really engaged with each other, striking sparks off of one another.  From that point on, the evening seemed to take flight into a different league, with Irina Lungu’s Corinna subsequently working it across the stage as a deliciously diva-ish Corinna.  Sagi does keep quite a witty idea until the end – but I won’t ruin it for you here.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Another issue with the evening was Giacomo Sagripanti’s conducting.  It felt far too cautious as if unafraid to take risks.  Tempi seemed to hover around a permanent state of andante, attack was flaccid and that irresistible sense of pulse emerging from the band that the music needs, seemed to be missing.  And yet, after the Melibea/Libenskof duet, the conducting also seemed to come to life.  The band played well – the well-upholstered strings always true in intonation in the intricate writing.  One consequence of the small-ish stage area is that the chorus was cut with the ensembles sung by the cast.  Balance seemed fine from my seat at the front of the Platea although I wonder whether it lacked heft for those seating higher up.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Despite the issues, this evening’s performance left me absolutely uplifted and elated in the way that Rossini can.  That was due to some spectacular singing throughout the entire cast.  The frequent and highly musical use of ornamentation made a genuine difference to the line, making it seem as though the work was being created right there and then in front of us.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Ruth Iniesta was a tremendous Madame Cortese, capping the ensembles with ease.  Her juicy soprano, with an easy top, was always a positive presence on stage.  The voice has wonderful ping and her coloratura was impeccable.  Sabina Puértolas gave us some stratospheric acuti as la Contessa di Folleville.  The voice sounded a little tight at the very top but she has plenty of agility and her peachy soprano had a cutting metallic edge at the core of the tone.  Lungu’s Corinna dispatched ‘arpa gentil’ with delicacy, displaying some elegant glissandi, although the tone had a tendency to spread meaning that she didn’t always sit on the centre of the note.  Her ‘all’ombra amena’ sounded somewhat effortful, the phrasing lacking in beauty, although she did give us some well-supported pianissimi.  Viotti’s Marchesa Melibea was terrific.  Hers is a contralto-tinged mezzo with a silky core, good agility and a bright top.  She has only been singing professionally for two years but is already a very exciting talent.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

The gentlemen also gave much pleasure in their roles.  Pietro Spagnoli gave us a masterclass in the use of text as Don Profondo, his aria witty and vocalized with aplomb.  Carlos Chausson was a nicely insinuating Trombonok, the emissions always even, with real character in the tone.  Gurgen Baveyan displayed a very handsome baritone as Don Alvaro, while Roberto Tagliavini’s Lord Sidney dispatched his scene with fine resonance, absolutely even from top to bottom, and turning the corners with ease.  We also had some extremely impressive performances from Taylor Stayton as Belfiore and Brownlee as Libenskof.  Stayton with a bright, forward, well-placed tenor that showed superb control in shading at the very top.  Something very special happens when Brownlee sings.  There’s something in the tone that just seems to come from another dimension that touches this listener and leaves one in awe.  He has that natural musicianship that cannot be taught, but can also create a believable and tangible character.  The remainder of the cast displayed the high standards seen throughout.  All sang off the text, rendering the titles superfluous.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Tonight was definitely all about the singing.  Yes, the production seemed to lack a coherent intellectual thread, and yes, the conducting felt too soft grained and cautious, but the singing of the cast, the clarity of the text and use of ornamentation made this a thoroughly uplifting evening.  We may be living through dark days, but the ability of Rossini, as interpreted by the cast here, to make the world a better place for a few hours was magnificently brought to life.  Certainly a very enjoyable evening.

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