The challenges of enlivening an opera classic

The challenges of enlivening an opera classic

PETER TROMP chatted to various members of the behind the scenes team of ‘Il Viaggio a Reims’ and got the scoop on what opera buffs can look forward to. The much anticipated Cape Town Opera production of the Rossini classic will be showing at the Baxter Theatre for five performances only from Tuesday to Saturday, August 26 to 30.

What can audiences look forward to with this production?
‘Il Viaggio a Reims’ is an incredibly eccentric and flamboyant comedy, filled with spectacular and joyful music. We’ve matched the zany text with a bright and breezy, off-the-wall production, set in a modern airport. It’s full of laughs and quirky touches.

What attracted you to the project in the first place?
I was initially nervous to take on my first Rossini opera. He tends to write a lot of rather long passages of elaborate music when nothing is moving forward in the plot. This is a big challenge for a director, but also offers great scope for creativity as you get to invent a lot of storyline to bring the repeats in the music to life.

What would you say is the most important decision a director must make in order for an opera to be a creative success?
I always try to work out what I can bring to a work that will allow it to communicate effectively with an audience. Should the treatment be realistic or more abstract, bold or subtle, irreverent or subdued? It’s about knowing what you want to say, and then trying to settle on the best form and style to convey the message.

KAMAL KHAN (Conductor)

Tell us a little about the music of ‘Il Viaggio a Reims’ and what makes it special.
‘Il Viaggio a Reims’ was written to celebrate a great international event, namely the coronation of Charles X of France. Paris was truly the place where one could find the finest musicians, and where one could afford to hire the finest opera singers, but rather than writing a heavy cantata, Rossini played a Pirandello-esque joke. The audience saw and heard a crowd of people like themselves – well off, successful and self obsessed – trying to reach the coronation against “trying” circumstances (I believe they are what we call “first world problems”). How did he succeed in getting people to laugh at themselves? By endowing them with some of the most glorious canto fiorito, literally “flowery singing” and sparkling ensemble singing ever written, before or since.

What are your favourite musical passages of the opera?
My favorite sections are two – the ‘Gran Pezzo Concertato’, which starts off with thirteen unaccompanied voices, and then, joined by a fourteenth, creates the rollicking first act finale of the opera. My other favourite is the sextet which has, nestled in the middle of it, accompanied by offstage harp, Corinna’s aria ‘Arpa Gentil’, which is as profound a musical exploration of the power of song to encourage mankind to aspire to the noblest ideals as exists anywhere in the literature. Who but Rossini could embed this in a comical sextet full of jealous lovers and hard drinking?

LEOPOLD SENEKAL (Original scenery and costume designs)

Can you please explain some of the overt, and more subtle choices you made in trying to establish a unified, and exciting visual sheen to the production.
The first explicit, categorical design choice was to set the entire opera in an international airport. As Henry Rollins puts it, “Airports in major cities are trippy environments. It is at once a national and international gathering of those in transition: The euphoric, emerging from planes, their journey at an end, and the determined, about to depart.”
We concentrated on the latter, but rather than depart, they all got stuck.
The decision had its pros and cons. It benefited the design in terms of allowing me to create a coherent, contemporary, articulated, clean, sleek, modern and highly stylized set and costume design that effortlessly translated and supported not only the overall design concept but also the array of outrageous characters.
On the other hand, placing the entire production in one setting was limiting and restrictive, triggering various additional challenges.
This forced us to come up with subtle, creative and inventive solutions to seamlessly manipulate the various elements of the set, allowing sleek and clean scenic transitions contributing to the unique vibrant visuals and contemporary contextual poetry of the production.

KOBUS ROSSOUW (Lighting design)

Lighting is one of those technical skills that not too many people appreciate the intricacies of. Can you please explain some of the choices you have been weighing up to give ‘Il Viaggio a Reims’ the appropriate lustre.
The Lighting Design for ‘Il Viaggio a Reims’ must provide a bright and “glossy” lighting interior, which is typical of today’s mega international airports like London Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt Airport. The arrival and departure halls in these airports are designed in such a way that the traveller remains oblivious to the time of day. The international traveller is in constant transit and must remain alert (courtesy of the bright digital display boards and signage), entertained (shopping) and fed.

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