Singing on the runway

A new production of the rarely-staged Rossini piece, Il Viaggio a Reims, gives it a contemporary setting.

The Israel Opera opens its new season with a modern dress performance of Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims (The Journey to Reims). Commissioned for the 1825 coronation celebrations of King Charles X of France, the musical is considered one of Rossini's finest pieces, but its large cast means that it's rarely performed. Another anomaly is its lack of dramatic plot, which tells the tale of an international assortment of aristocrats stuck at an inn on the way to the coronation - the opera follow their efforts at amusing themselves and their interactions, mainly amatory, with each other. "I think this is a masterpiece, one of the best Rossini operas," says Italian conductor Pietro Rizzo, as he rests after a day-long rehearsal with the Israel Opera. "It demands 17 singers, at least 12 of whom must be first class. For the audience, this is an opportunity to hear the best of operatic fireworks, virtuosity taken to its limit." The conductor describes one of the best ensembles, which comes at the end of the first act, when 14 soloists sing a capella for five minutes before the orchestra enters. "When you listen to Rossini's music, you can hear he was a good man, who enjoyed good food and wine, and was full of love of life, he says. "But here it reaches its extreme: Everything is amplified - a real explosion." According to Rizzo, Rossini is not as appreciated as he should be. "People say he is boring and mechanical, that he is always repeating the same melodies. Even if that's true, I think that just gives more power to the performer: You have to bring this music to life, by going with the singers, by feeling the sparkle. The same goes for the soloists. It is not about just singing these virtuoso coloraturas, but about creating the personality." Rizzo does not see the lack of real story as a failing on the part of the opera. Rather, this gives the director freedom to create his or her own story. "I've made four different productions of Il Viaggio a Reims, and every time the situation on stage was different, which is what is so fantastic about," he says. French director Mariame Clément, who staged this production of Viaggio, has released a statement that the piece is "heaven for a stage director. Il Viaggio a Reims is an exceptional work, full of possibilities, precisely because almost nothing happens. As Seinfeld and George put it, 'Who says there's got to be a story?' This is the epitome of post-modernism - a show about nothing." She explains that the challenge for the director lies in finding what makes this "nothingness" so appealing. "What makes Viaggio so special, what allows this series of non-events to maintain a form of dramatic tension, is the waiting. The waiting, the impatience, the urge to leave... and the constantly delayed departure," Clément notes. This quite logically led her to the idea of transfer the entire story from an inn to an airport: "The stress of absolutely having to leave. Flight delayed, flight cancelled. This is a situation to which everyone in an audience can relate. Better still: actually on the plane, boarding is completed, the passengers are seated and have fastened their seatbelts - and yet, for some unknown reason, the plane does not move," she describes. "Hours go by. How do people react? How does tension mount? How do arrogant first-class passengers claim their rights? When do the economy-class passengers start rebelling? Where and how do two lovers find ten minutes of privacy? And does the plane finally take off?" From November 20 to December 1, at the Tel Aviv Opera House, 19 Shaul Hamelech St., (03) 692-7777. Sung in the original Italian, with surtitles in Hebrew and English, NIS 160-399 (NIS 15 surcharge on Saturday nights). Michael Ajzenstadt moderates a preview of the production with its cast and creators tomorrow (Saturday) morning at 11 a.m., for which tickets cost NIS 70.