An Interview with Lars Gebhardt
A narcissistic hall of mirrors
Director Jan Bosse stages Gioacchino Rossini’s absurd coronation opera “Il viaggio a Reims” at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.
“Il viaggio a Reims” was written for a particular event in the social calendar: the celebrations to mark the coronation of Charles X in Paris. Gioacchino Rossini was aware of the opera’s short half-life. He withdrew it after just a few performances and reused many of the routines in his “Le comte Ory”. But after the work experienced a revival in concert halls in the 1980s, why has it had a comeback as a fully-fledged acted-out opera?
Jan Bosse: I think of the opera as decidedly modern, the way it was conceived as an ensemble piece. A bunch of people are holed up in a hotel and indulge themselves in a string of absurd activities. We’re not dealing here with a dramatic storyline involving a few soloists but rather a succession of contrastive and very entertaining ‘numbers’, like in a revue. The numbers, or routines, explore different set-ups that are very familiar to opera goers: the unrequited lover, the suffering diva, the jealous couple circling each other, the oddball. This string of numbers and also the group exposition by the ensemble are really great for a director like me who’s used to working with actors!
It’s a fundamentally absurd set-up: countesses, lords, barons and dons hailing from a variety of European countries are trying to get to the king’s coronation at Reims but are stranded in a hotel without horses or carriages and opt to celebrate the big event anyway. As a director, how do you approach the static backdrop against which the action plays out?
Jan Bosse: This stasis is what moves us to absurdities. We are presented with a dormitory, a bedroom. Is it a spa clinic? A hospice? A haven for weary Europeans? Every evening they gird themselves for the big trip – to celebrate the coronation of the new king at last – and end up getting bogged down in abstruse rituals. A new reason is always found to flop back down in bed or to organise their own private knees-up. It’s a prison of their own choosing, a narcissistic hall of mirrors that does everything it can to keep reality at bay. After all, the music in all its virtuosity, coloratura, tonal peaks and proficient little flourishes is infused with a sizeable dollop of narcissism - which the director then has to reflect.
Rossini and his librettist Luigi Balochi tend to flog the European clichés: the fiery Spaniard and jealous Russian competing for the beautiful Pole, the effusive Frenchwoman obsessed with her clothes, the German attempting to mediate, and so on. In the 1820s the idea of Europe as an entity of nations united as one was still pie in the sky. Today we see disparate groups calling into question again the European idea. What’s the work’s angle on all that? Is there scope to explore the issue of a European utopia?
Jan Bosse: In the opera the European idea is still an embryonic one, including the absurd hope of salvation by a vestigial absolutism under the Christian cross. Rossini’s coronation opera was swept away just five years later by the July Revolution, along with its celebrated figure, Charles X. Our reading of the work picks up around the end of this process, where the European idea is only holding together under duress, as it lacks any truly cohesive aspects and the fear of general disintegration and unpredictable chaos outweighs the courage needed to join forces to prevent it. The stagnation in the work, which is overlaid with a flurry of trumped-up activities and – in the big party at the end – with hedonism offers a number of interesting parallels with the Europe of today.
The opera was Rossini’s first to be written for France and was to be his last opera in the Italian language. He took the opportunity to present a ‘best of Italian opera’. Similar to a revue, we’re given a parody of arias by the great opera seria heroine, an elaborate vocal sextet, fine duets, the aria parlante so typical of opera buffa and, outdoing it all, the “gran pezzo concertato” for 14 voices. It really is a musical firework that Rossini is touching off here. Is the revue nature of the work of any help to the director or is it more of a hindrance?
Jan Bosse: Yes, the opera is a kind of revue but a revue that is constantly getting a spanner thrown in its works, thwarting the smooth running of the machine. But the show must go on, as they say. The slogan is: “Once more from the beginning tomorrow evening!” And of course, as a director, it’s nice not having to bother about psychological logic or probability but being able to indulge yourself and lurch from one absurdly funny number to the next.