Days Bay Opera triumphs with Rossini rarity: The Journey to Rheims

Opera in a Days Bay Garden. Il viaggio a Reims. Producer: Rhona Fraser.

Musical director: Michael Vinten; stage director: Sara Brodie. Singers as named in the text; an orchestra of piano (Richard Mapp) and flute, oboe, clarinets, bassoon, horn and double bass

Canna House, Moana Road, Days Bay

Wednesday 1 December (repeated on 2, 3 and 4 December)

This production, announced as the Australasian premiere, was staged in the enchanting garden of soprano Rhona Fraser and her husband Professor Campbell McLachlan, where The Marriage of Figaro was so brilliantly staged in March. It lies in a natural amphitheatre in the beech-clad hills behind Days Bay. Rhona had sung in a production of the opera when she was a student at the Guildhall School of Music and she had filed away its potential for use somewhere else.

This was it.

It was in Andrew Porter’s English translation; director Sara Brodie (who had directed Figaro) had brought it into the present day, and had given her cast licence to turn their roles into something that suited their personalities and their own particular styles of humour and their histrionic strengths. There was much that seemed, reading the libretto, to have been invented, and the accretions were always to the point – however you might see that.

A Frankfurt performance

In Frankfurt two and a half years ago, I happened upon a production of this Rossini rarity, and naturally got myself a ticket. I had not spotted it till a day or so before arriving and so had little chance to find a synopsis, though I did have a rough idea of it. It was in its original Italian with German surtitles which was some help, though my German does not really afford full comprehension at surtitle speed. It was not one of their major productions, conducted by Johannes Debus and directed by Dale Duesing; nor did I know any of the dozen principal singers.

Instead of being stranded in the absence of horses for their onward journey to Rheims for the 1825 coronation of Charles X, the party of travellers found themselves on an island without canoes.

I found it moderately amusing, as the direction seemed not to have sparked any infectious sense of the ridiculous in the cast. It was the kind of comedy that the English, or the French, might be better at. That was convincingly proved by the production at Days Bay.


The opera was the first that Rossini wrote for Paris, and accordingly he set great store by it. He employed the greatest voices of the time, including Giuditta Pasta as Corinna. The story was put together by the Italian librettist Luigi Balochi for the Théâtre Italien in Paris to celebrate the coronation of Charles X in 1825 (one of the lack-lustre French kings who followed the defeat of Napoleon; he survived till the July Revolution of 1830 when he was supplanted by Louis-Philippe).

Balochi was later responsible for the French versions of two earlier Italian works that Rossini adapted for the Opéra in Paris: Le siège de Corinthe and Moïse et Pharaon.

It is based in part on a novel, Corinne, ou L’Italie, by Madame de Staël,  the famous littératrice, thorn in Napoleon’s side, mistress of Benjamin Constant, friend of Byron and August Wilhelm Schlegel.

It was performed four times in Paris and then withdrawn by Rossini because he recognised that the essentially ‘occasional’ character of the piece would militate against its lasting success. It was never again performed till recent decades. Rossini may also have had in mind, from the beginning, to cannibalised much of it in another opera. Thus about half found its way into his next Paris opera, Le comte Ory, (which was produced by Canterbury Opera in 2004) and the rest seemed simply to have disappeared and was presumed lost, till the 1970s when manuscript sources were found in the library of the St Cecilia Academy in Rome, as well as in Paris and Vienna, allowing the entire work to be reconstructed.

First: where are we? At Plombières-les-bains; as the name suggests, a spa town, in eastern France. It’s in the département of Vosges, about 60km west of Colmar and 100km south of Nancy at the southern edge of Lorraine. About 250km south-east of Rheims.

The Southern premiere in Days Bay

See a full synopsis of the opera, with names of this cast members inserted, taken from the website of La Scala, Milan, at the end of this review.

The Days Bay version could hardly have been more different from what I saw in Frankfurt; and almost all of it much more successful and entertaining.

The story gathers together aristocrats of several nationalities who exhibit national stereotypes as seen from Paris, none of them too cruel. The 1825 occasion was seen as some kind of return to a normality desired by conservative monarchical forces, in which Europe would be peacefully ruled by enlightened monarchs: it suggested to the production team a shift to a contemporary Europe united by the EU.

The stranded guests never make it to the coronation because no horses can be found to take them the rest of the way to Rheims. While they wait for something to happen, various amusements are devised; the first, which I do not see in the libretto, is a book-signing of a slim volume of verse entitled EU Poetry by Roman poetess Corinna, Amelia Berry, one of the three prime donne.

These volumes then have attached to them, names of things as if for sale: ‘nuclear power’, ‘relics’, ‘orphans’, ‘mail order brides’, ‘watches and chocolate’, ‘minerals’… I didn’t get it, nor could I find a clue in the libretto.

Excellent use is made of the amenities of the house, the swimming pool, the terrace the various doors from the terrace into the house, while the small piano and winds orchestra fits comfortably in a broader extension of the deck on the right. Though without strings other than double bass, they provided a very apt accompaniment.

In spite of the large number of singers, most had succeeded in engraving a personality before the end of the first act, a tribute to both the singers’ accomplishment and the clear and witty characterisation achieved in the brilliant libretto and it present-day glosses.

Rhona Fraser herself sang the role of the hotel manager, Madama Cortese: while never seeking to ape her aristocratic guests, she is confident, unpretentious, with a natural dignity; she sings the part excellently.

The majority of the cast are or have been students at the New Zealand School of Music, and their training at the hands of Emily Mair (till recently), Flora Edwards, Jenny Wollerman and Margaret Medlyn shows. Rachel Day has the small part of Maddalena yet it becomes a quite conspicuous role, vocally and in presence: bossy, impatient. The same goes for another of the hotel staff, Antonio, sung confidently by Charles Wilson, and the local doctor, Don Prudenzio (Thomas Barker), another promising theatrical singer.

Perhaps the most vivid character, as she was in the New Zealand School of Music’s Semele by Handel in 2009 (where many of these singers also performed in a comparably large cast), was Olga Gryniewicz. She seems to have overcome a tightness in her upper range to deliver a performance of the Contessa di Folleville that was strong, funny, sexy and full of character.

Bianca Andrew could have taken a bigger role than that of Folleville’s maid, Modestina (someone needed to display a touch of modesty in this company, though her ultimate purpose was revealed as something entirely different). Don Luigino, a cousin of Folleville, has taken on the job of organising things, and Jonathan Abernethy carried that off effectively.

Among the bigger roles was that of the German Baron Trombonok, who’s a music lover and is responsible for organising the singing of national songs at the end. Michel Alkhouri’s accent makes him no more suited to his role than any of the others (after all they are all foreigners except the English ‘Lord’; but should foreignness be heard through Italian ears in this piece?); with an attractive baritone voice he was an adornment.

Roger Wilson found himself with the scholarly, antiquarian role of Don Profondo that seemed to suit both his vocal range and style as well as his flair for mimicry and droll posturings. He relished its big patter aria in which he delighted the crowd as he compiled an inventory of the travellers’ baggage, leaping unerringly from one accent to the next – one of his famous talents.

There’s a Spanish grandee, Don Alvaro, sung by Orene Tiai, a promising voice but not yet fully confident in such a role, though the quintet in which he sings with his rival in love, the Russian Count Libenskof (Benjamin Fifita Makisi) and their object, the Polish Marchesa Melibea (Maaike Christie-Beekman), along with Roger Wilson and Rhona Fraser was an early high point.

Makisi’s performance had all the expected confidence and polish, which might well have set him far above most of his colleagues; happily, the brilliant line-up of so many less experienced singers but vocally impressive and theatrical gifted, made for a surprisingly even cast.

A duel between the Russian and the Spaniard over Melibea is narrowly averted by a voice from an upstairs window. It is Amelia Berry as Corinna who arrives in time to calm things, and she soon gains the limelight besporting herself provocatively on the garden wall. Her voice too is as captivating as her legs. She becomes something of an EU symbol with blue gown and the EU circle of stars.

Fresh travellers continue to arrive. Englishman Lord Sidney, sung by baritone Kieran Rayner, is garbed with a Union Jack, caricatured punk-style as an eccentric under-cover agent, delivering cryptic reports into his wrist and manipulating a cellphone. If he’s an ineffective lover and generally insensitive to what’s going on, Rayner’s performance, vocally and histrionically, was one of the best of the evening.

Though formally in one act, this production was divided into two. The second opens with the arrival of the French Chevalier Belfiore (tenor Michael Gray). Sure of his amatory prowess, he makes a protracted and unsuccessful attempt on Corinna’s carefully managed virtue: Gray’s is a most polished performance.

After news that all attempts to find transport have failed and there will be no journey to Rheims, a great ensemble in rollicking rhythm develops, each traveller opining in turn that he/she will die of grief. But there’s still love interest to come with a long duet between the Russian (Makisi) and the Pole (Christie-Beekman), which ends this time, in capitulation. Though it’s modern times – witness Lord Sidney’s electronic paraphernalia – the Russian is still represented by the Soviet flag rather than the Russian tricolor.

A final directoral flourish was the unveiling of Modestina’s role as suicide-bomber (motive not explained), who’d evaded discovery by the vigilant punk Lord Sidney.

Delia, Corinna’s maid, was a small role but one that Rose Blake made an impact in. And the rest of this extraordinary cast comprised hotel staff, all of whom exhibited individual talents of a high order: Clarissa Dunn, Simon Harndenm Peter King, Thomas O’Brien and Imogen Thirlwall.

That Rhona Fraser, Sara Brodie and Michael Vinten have demonstrated so convincingly, now for a second time in nine months, how much talent rests under-exploited in Wellington, should alert the city to this wonderful enterprise. It is shameful that the daily newspaper refused to cover it, where a review would perhaps draw attention to it more effectively than does a website (though we say so ourselves).

It is of course too much to expect Creative New Zealand to support something as singular and spectacularly successful as this.

A Postscript

That so many highly accomplished young singers with such well-developed stage skills are available in Wellington is remarkable; and it makes one lament that there is almost no professional work for them in the city.

And it’s to be noted that only four of the eleven on stage for the March Marriage of Figaro were again to be seen in this production; further evidence of the large number of singers ready (or nearly) for a professional career.

Since the merger of the opera companies of Wellington and Auckland, there has been no company based in Wellington for a decade: NBR New Zealand Opera presents fewer productions than Wellington City Opera used to do on its own. Till 2000, Auckland and Wellington, between them, were seeing five or six different opera productions a year (generally three in Wellington and two in Auckland). So the amount of work for singers is now much less.

Perhaps it’s time for some clear-sighted promoters, backed by the city council and its many enlightened, wealthy arts patrons, to restore Wellington’s own company, which would aim at three or even four economical yet stylish and appropriate productions annually in Wellington, employing New Zealand singers, musicians and production staff.

A synopsis from the La Scala website, with the cast of the Days Bay production inserted

The housekeeper of “Il Giglio d’Oro” hotel, Maddalena (Rachel Day), urges the staff to prepare diligently the visit to Reims which her guests are about to undertake, that same evening, to go to the coronation of Charles X, the new king, which will take place – according to tradition – in that city.

After Don Prudenzio (Thomas Barker), the hotel doctor, has closely examined the meals prepared for the guests, to make sure that they conform to his directions, and Madama Cortese (Rhona Fraser) has once again reminded her servants to maintain the reputation of the inn, the Countess of Folleville (Olga Gryniewicz), a pretty Parisienne who is “mad about fashion”, mistress of the handsome French official, the Chevalier Belfiore (Michael Gray), voices her concern because her clothes for the great celebration have not yet arrived.

Don Luigino (Jonathan Abernethy), the cousin of the Countess of Folleville, who is in charge of the arrangements, announces that the coach carrying the personal effects of the noble lady has overturned, damaging its precious cargo of boxes and cases.

At this news, the Countess faints and all the other guests at the hotel crowd around her and try to revive her.

The arrival of Modestina (mezzo Bianca Andrew), the Countess’s surly maid, with a trunk which has been miraculously salvaged from the ruinous road accident, revives the anguished gentlewoman, who is satisfied at having recovered a precious little hat to wear at the celebration.

In the meantime, the Baron of Trombonok (Michel Alkhouri), a German official and music fanatic, elected treasurer for the voyage by the hotel guests, makes the final arrangements with the “hotel manager” Antonio (Charles Wilson), to take care of the baggage and to the eventual needs of the voyagers.

Don Profondo (Roger Wilson), a learned member of various Academies and fanatical collector of antiques, and Don Alvaro (Orene Tiai), a Spanish Grandee, enter and present the beautiful Polish widow of an Italian general, the Marchesa Melibea (Maaike Christie-Beekman), with whom Don Alvaro has fallen in love, to the Baron of Trombonok. She wants to go to Reims together with the other illustrious members of the company.

The arrival of the Count of Libenskof (Ben Fifita Makisi), a Russian gentleman, also in love with Melibea, makes Don Alvaro jealous, and their rivalry is openly expressed in the presence of Melibea and Madama Cortese until the singing of another guest at the “Giglio d’Oro” hotel, Corinna (Amelia Berry), who comes from Rome (in this version, Greece) and whose art is to improvise songs and poetry, is heard from behind the scenes and calms down the heated exchange of jealous rivalry.

Madama Cortese is worried about the delay of Zefirino, the courier sent in search of horses for the journey. She is also thinking about the reciprocated but undeclared love of the English guest, Lord Sidney (Kieran Rayner), for Corinna.

Lord Sidney arrives, lamenting over his woes as a lover. Corinna, having received a letter by hand from Don Profondo, reads it and reassures Delia (Rose Bake), her Greek orphan friend, about the fate of her country and invites her to join the company on its way to Reims. She finally notices the flowers arranged in her room: Lord Sidney’s daily love token.

The Chevalier Belfiore (Michael Gray), finding the poetess alone, tries to seduce her, convinced of his proven prowess, but Don Profondo interrupts him and makes fun of him. He begins to compile the list of valuable objects belonging to the voyagers which the Baron has asked him for.

After a quick exchange of words between Don Profondo and the Countess of Folleville, who has intuited the courtship between the Chevalier Belfiore and Corinna, many of the guests become impatient to leave but the arrival of the Baron and Zefirino creates an atmosphere of gloom: the voyage cannot be undertaken because, in the whole of Plombières, there is not a single horse to be hired or bought because of the vast number of voyagers who are also going to Reims for the grand ceremony.

Madama Cortese raises the spirits of the company by showing her guests a letter from Paris sent by her husband which announces the great festivities being prepared in the capital in honour of the king and to welcome his return: an extremely pleasurable way to console themselves for the unaccomplished voyage to Reims. The Countess of Folleville offers everyone hospitality at her home in Paris.

The proposal is accepted which enthusiasm and they decide to leave the next day with the daily coach for the capital. With part of the money put aside for the voyage to Reims, they will organise that very evening a feast, open to all, to celebrate, in any case, the coronation of the king, and the rest will be given to charity.

Everything is resolved and the Baron tries to settle the quarrel between the Count of Libenskof and the Polish Marchesa, caused by Don Alvaro.

The two lovers are reconciled ant the next scene opens on the illuminated gardens of the hotel in which a rich table has been laid.

The hotel manager Antonio learns from Maddalena, the governess, that the Baron has engaged a company of roving musicians and dancers, passing through the area, to liven up the feast. They soon appear and, with their songs and dances, they commence the festivities.

The Baron announces, in accordance with the rules already agreed, a series of toasts in the musical styles of the various countries of origin of the guests, in honour of the king and the royal family.

At the end, everyone presents request for a poetic performance from Corinna as a fit ending to the feast. The guests therefore propose various themes for the poetess’s improvisation, mainly deriving from the history of France and out of which Melibea draws by lot that of «Charles X, King of France».
After Corinna’s musical celebration and among general acclaim to the king and to France, the performance ends with the praising of the royal family.

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