Bringing Art to Life: Il Viaggio a Reims at the Palau de les Arts

Rossini – Il viaggio a Reims

Corinna – Mariangela Sicilia
La Marchesa Melibea – Marina Viotti
La Contessa di Folleville – Albina Shagimuratova
Madama Cortese – Ruth Iniesta
Il Cavaliere Belfiore – Ruzil Gatin
Il Conte di Libenskof – Sergey Romanovsky
Lord Sidney – Adrian Sâmpetrean
Don Profondo – Misha Kiria
Il Barone di Trombonok – Fabio Capitanucci
Don Alvaro – César San Martín
Don Prudenzio – Max Hochmuth
Don Luigino – Joel Williams
Delia – Aida Gimeno
Maddalena – Francesca Cucuzza
Modestina – Evgeniya Khomutova
Zefirino – Gonzalo Manglano
Antonio – Omar Lara
Gelsomino – Gonzalo Manglano

Cor de la Generalitat Valenciana, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana / Francesco Lanzillotta.
Stage director – Damiano Michieletto.

Palau de les Arts, València.  Saturday, February 29th, 2020.

It was a neat idea on behalf of the Palau de les Arts to mark Rossini’s birthday with this revival of Damiano Michieletto’s staging of Il Viaggio a Reims, tonight revived by Eleonora Gravagnola.  The house assembled a youthful cast of both established and up-and-coming singers, including several members of the house’s training program, the Centre de Perfeccionament.  The excellent house forces were placed under the direction of Francesco Lanzillotta.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo & Mikel Ponce / Palau de les Arts

Michieletto’s staging is well travelled, having also been seen in Amsterdam and Australia.  I saw it in 2017 in Copenhagen, where I thought it a brilliantly inspired piece of theatre – an impression reinforced tonight.  Rather than setting the work in an inn, Michieletto sets it in an art gallery, the Golden Lilium Gallery, where the staff, overseen by Madama Cortese, are setting up a vernissage.  As the evening unfolds, artworks come to life, characters emerge from boxes and take form right in front of our eyes.  There was something exhilarating in hearing the audience react with glee to seeing famous artworks coming to life – the familiarity bringing a sense of participation, of living a shared experience.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo & Mikel Ponce / Palau de les Arts

At the same time, Michieletto populates the stage with real flesh and blood characters.  The dominant Madama Cortese, ruling over her staff with imperious force, or the shoe-loving Contessa di Folleville.  The staging abounds in so many insightful touches – as Libenskof and Melibea sing their duet within a picture frame on stage, two doubles, observing their painting, seem to mirror their actions, bringing that sense of the universality of art so vibrantly to life.  The evening culminates with all the characters coming together to recreate François Gérard’s 1827 painting The Coronation of Charles X.  There was something so uplifting in seeing the painting take shape in front of us.  Michieletto makes us reflect on the experience of art – both our role as consumers and the role of those who create it, as well as how it can last across the centuries.  More than that, in a time when Europe and the rest of the world are succumbing to populism, spreading hate against those considered ‘others’, this message of the universality of art, of people from many different nations coming together to create something special, is so hopeful and optimistic, sending spectators out into the night with a renewed hope in humanity – something desperately necessary these days.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo & Mikel Ponce / Palau de les Arts

Musically, there was so much that gave pleasure.  That said, I must start with a significant disappointment and that was Lanzillotta’s conducting.  There was a lot that was good – strings played with minimal vibrato and the articulation he encouraged them to use was very impressive.  There was a cantabile beauty in the wind lines, particularly from an especially characterful clarinet.  The fortepiano, played by Simone Ori, occasionally added some witty interjections to the line.  Unfortunately, however, Lanzillotta’s tempi felt ponderous, lacking in energy, and lacked precisely that sense of bouncing wit the music really needs.  The fortepiano was also underused, just occasionally making appearances, when it could have been used even more to comment on the action and push it forward.  The recitatives also sagged.  This was doubly disappointing because the quality of the orchestral playing was not in doubt and the excellent house chorus sang with impeccable blend and accuracy of tuning.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo & Mikel Ponce / Palau de les Arts

Vocally, the work had been cast from strength.  Mariangela Sicilia gave us a lovely Corinna, singing both her extensive numbers with limpid tone and impeccable poise.  The legato was milky smooth, pouring out streams of long-lined beauty.  Ruth Iniesta sang Madama Cortese with generosity.  Her chalky soprano had a tendency to spread at times, not always sitting precisely on the note, but her agility and impressively full acuti, combined with her deliciously imperious stage presence made for an entertaining assumption – and she’s also the owner of a genuine trill.  Albina Shagimuratova rose to the Contessa di Folleville’s big number with wit, using the tone imaginatively to bring the hypochondriac shoe and jewel lover to life.  Her coloratura was immaculate, adding some stratospheric yet tasteful embellishments to the line.  Marina Viotti was a terrific Melibea.  Her mezzo is in fabulous shape, warm and even, and she also embellished her lines in the Melibea-Libenskof duet, bringing out an improvisatory freedom that made it sound like only she could sing this music.  Unfortunately, her ‘ai prodi guerrieri’ was hampered by the lugubrious tempo from the pit, but she did her best to camp it up magnificently.  Definitely a singer to watch.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo & Mikel Ponce / Palau de les Arts

Her Libenskof was Sergey Romanovsky.  He’s the owner of a sappy tenor who definitely has the notes.  Perhaps it was first night nerves, but there was a tendency to give a little too much, to push the voice on top rather than letting it flow.  Ruzil Gatin sang Belfiore with a bright, well-placed tenor, with an implicit musicality and an impressive ease in shading the tone at the top of the voice.  Adrian Sâmpetrean sang Sidney’s big scene with handsome lyricism and warm burnished tone.  His legato was absolutely impeccable – not a single aspirate to be heard – and also demonstrated outstanding agility through some tasteful variations to the line.  Misha Kiria almost stole the show with his witty dispatch of Don Profundo’s number.  The voice is huge but with liquid beauty and he was able to turn the corners with ease and gave us an impressive variety of accents as he mimicked the various nationalities.  Fabio Capitanucci gave us a nicely sardonic Barone di Trombonok, his baritone full of character.  The remaining roles were well taken and reflected the very good quality found at this address.

Photo: © Miguel Lorenzo & Mikel Ponce / Palau de les Arts

There really was so much to love in this Viaggio.  That brilliantly inspired production, the quality of the singing across the board and the excellence of the house forces.  I regret that it was let down by conducting that certainly had some very fine ideas, but that unfortunately also felt earthbound and over-manicured.  That said, the genius of Michieletto’s vision and the satisfaction given by the singing make this a show that is very much worth seeing.  It was received with an enormous and generous ovation by the Valencian public.

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