Sunday, May 14, 2000

CCM's 'Viaggio' fun voyage into comedy

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “You could call the world a big cage of looney birds,” sings the Baron di Trombonok (Daniel Okulitch) in Rossini's festive Il Viaggio a Reims (The Voyage to Reims).

        That may be a fair description of the plot of Rossini's rediscovered operatic showpiece, mounted Thursday at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music in Corbett Auditorium. Contrary to the title, there is no voyage. The sole dramatic thread in this gala piece, written in honor of the Coronation of Charles X in 1825, consists of waiting for a journey that never takes place.

        For the CCM production, director Malcolm Fraser cleverly redesigned the finale as an homage to those who played a role in the new “CCM Village.” He also honored retiring Dean Robert J. Werner, whose likeness was captured in a startlingly realistic, larger-than-life puppet.

        Despite its dramatic weakness, the music is sparkling, the wit is frothy and it is a true bel canto showcase. The Voyage calls for no fewer than three prima donna sopranos, a contralto, two tenors and four baritones and basses. What was most amazing was how brilliantly the CCM singers rose to the occasion. In the pit, guest conductor Ted Taylor led with momentum, and the CCM Philharmonia was vibrant and crisp.

        The 14 international nobles who are pent up in a spa hotel, the Golden Lily, waiting for a carriage that never comes, cope in a variety of comic vignettes. The opera opened on the spa's elegant marble lobby (designed by Paul Shortt). A moving walkway crossed the front of the airy atrium (beautifully lighted by James Milkey), enabling walls or furniture to slide in and out. It was updated to 1900, allowing for lavish turn-of-the-century costumes (Dean Mogle).

        Some moments were hilarious — such as a swimming pool scene between the British Lord Sidney and Corinna, spectacularly performed by Kirk Eichelberger and Miranda Rowe. Another high point was Mr. Eichelberger's serious love aria, as he worked out with barbells, against a dazzling flute obbligato (Erinn Frechette).

        When a duel between Spaniard Don Alvaro (Benjamin Smith) and the Russian Count Libenskof (Ross Hauck) turned to slow mo tion, it was a stroke of genius.

        Other scenes were a bit contrived, such as the physical exam endured by Don Profondo (Wayne Tigges) as he sang a wonderful buffo “catalog aria” while the hotel doctor (Benjamin Smolder) prodded and poked.

        Rossini's musical glories made up for the sometimes sagging momentum, including the “Gran Pezzo Concertato a 14 Voci” — a moment when everything stopped for an a cappella piece for 14 soloists. The ladies of the cast were scene-stealers, beginning with Eileen Stawiski, a radiant Madame Cortese, who dispatched her extravagant trills and roulades admirably. Soprano Esther Hyun Nam's coloratura was sparkling and fluid as the fashion-crazed Contessa di Folleville. Judith Ann Metzger (Marchesa Melibea) was an arresting singing actress.

        The most laughs from the audience of 403 came when surtitles didn't correspond to the Italian text, in the finale's aria so beautifully sung by soprano Ms. Rowe.

        The homage to the King was altered to tell how Dean Werner contacted arts angels to make the new campus a reality, including Patricia Corbett, whose portrait descended, Louise Nippert and Multimedia's WalterBartlett.

        The finale included a charming dance by members of CCM's ballet department, engagingly choreographed by Carol Iwasaki.

        The opera repeats at 2:30 p.m. today. Tickets: 556-4183.


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