By Eva Huber
One last time it was showed at the Opera House in Zurich: Il Viaggio a Reims; and I was lucky enough to get the chance to see it.
Rossini’s last Italian opera only consists of one act and is further divided into different scenes. The frame story is simple: various noble European people conglomerate in the Golden Lily spa hotel in anticipation of their departure for King Charles X’s coronation that evening. Much to their disappointment, however, the departure is adjourned indefinitely as no horses are at free disposal. In order to soothe the subdued mood, a party to celebrate the coronation is promised to be thrown the following day.
The story begins in the morning, when the servants are ordered to congregate in the entrance, and the 13 protagonists are introduced individually through different stories and anecdotes in the various scenes. While some of the stories merge into another one, others remain isolated and seem irrelevant to the whole plot. Similarly, some characters are developed more in depth after their first appearance, whereas others remain quite unknown. For the audience, it is hard to grasp the connections between the different residents. The way they certainly are connected to each other is that they are all confined to stay in the hotel. Leading a life in affluence, the sorrows of the rich and wealthy of Europe seem rather trivial. The absurdity of their behaviour is highlighted even more by the staging and the movements of the protagonists which results in ludicrous and hilarious situations.
For instance, soon after the French countess’ arrival, she faints when she learns from her cousin that her ordered clothes cannot be delivered this present day. Luckily, a bonnet is delivered later on, which heightens her spirits significantly. Following her, more and more of the thirteen Europeans appear, and their actions are also ridiculed through the music. Rossini cites renowned opera pieces, the most famous example possibly being Mozart’s Queen of the Night. Even the most tragic arias transform themselves into grotesque situations. Only the famous singer Corinna’s improvisation can be taken seriously.
However, the situations are not merely made grotesque through implicit notions. They even state it literally: ‘Ma ognun nel mondo ha un ramo di pazzia’. Everyone on this planet may in a way be a little bit crazy. And this inherent folly of humankind might come to light clearly when a bunch of overexcited, diverse people are gathered in a luxurious hotel in the French province. At the latest, when the doctor claims it to be necessary to check the travellers’ health in order to make sure that they are fit enough to undertake this journey, one slowly starts to question whether one is really following the story set in a hotel. These inescapable premises may as well be a sanatorium for the European aricrostacy.
The story and its characters certainly set the ground for an entertaining evening. But if it was not for the stage director’s work, the performance might have been slightly less brilliant and diverting. Christoph Marthaler, who is originally from Zurich, has long established his name in the world of theatre and opera production. He presents Rossini’s operatic dramma giocoso in a witty, lively way, accentuating subtly the ironies of both characters and scenes. In the same manner, the stage design proved to be a feast for the eyes. Through the division of the stage into two floors, several actions could be shown simultaneously. The spa hotel’s interior resembled a fashionable hotel that you would find today. The paintings on the wall, too, showed familiar faces; various influential European politicians. As they were constantly moved, one could sense the instability of their representations, possibly referring to current issues.
Christoph Marthaler himself revealed that it was delicate to show a piece which mocks interpersonal European relations. Not long after the terrorist attacks in Paris, one is likely reminded of the discrepancies between different cultures. All the same, as the protagonists dealt with minor matters which were led ad absurdum, I left the Opera with a positive and satisfied feeling, after having enjoyed entertainment at the highest level.
Look out for one of the next operas they are showing at the Opera in Zurich: Die Hamletmaschine by Wolfgang Rihm. It is based on the drama by the contemporary German playwright Heiner Müller, which was the result of an attempt to translate Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Certainly interesting for every English student!