Il Viaggio a Reims at the Sydney Opera House
If Rossini made a showreel of his best work, it would sound like Il Viaggio a Reims (The Journey to Reims). The prolific composer was unabashedly showing off when he wrote this incredible work, destined to dazzle the aristocracy at the crowning of Charles X and then disappear forever. The simple plot is a marvellous excuse for a string of fantastic arias and impressive ensemble pieces.
Because it’s so demanding and expensive to stage, it’s never been seen in Australia before. But in 2019, Rossini’s exultant opera finally makes its Australian premiere, a spectacular vehicle for some of your favourite performers.
Rosie spoke with performer John Longmuir about this premiere and why this is an experience unlike anything Opera Australia has brought us before. Read the full interview below:
What has been unique about preparing and rehearsing for Il Viaggio a Reims compared with other operas you have worked on? What can audiences look forward to in this production?
I have been in so called ‘ensemble pieces’ before (Don Giovanni, Falstaff, Magic Flute) but Viaggio is by far the biggest, in terms of principals needed, FOURTEEN in total! and they ALL have to be accomplished singers (at its premiere, only the very best singers of the time were used, a tradition that has continued with each subsequent revival and recording) To wrangle that many soloists can be a bit of a logistical nightmare but not only has our revival Director (Con Costi) managed it, he’s managed to imbue the story telling with so much clarity and detail that you could watch it ten times and still not catch every hilarious moment. Thankfully a very tight knit cast has been assembled by OA and what the audience gets, is a wonderfully detailed, visually stunning and fun night in the theatre, with some of the best singing they’re likely to hear.
The scale of this production has meant that, before this year, Il Viaggio a Reims has not been able to be performed in Australia. What's it like taking on the Australian premiere of this grandiose opera? Have you been involved in a production of this scale before, and can you give us a sneak peek of what this 'demanding and expensive' set will look like?
Viaggio is a challenge for any opera company to present, Rossini is tricky and finding singers capable of doing it justice even trickier. I LOVE Rossini (my debut with OA was in The Barber of Seville) so getting to present an unfamiliar work, in a wonderful production, is like sharing a favourite TV show or book with someone and getting excited about being able to share their experience of it. I have been very lucky to be in some magnificent productions (David McVicar’s Don Giovanni, Graham Murphy’s Turandot, William Kentridge’s Wozzeck) but Damiano’s production is bursting with surprises. Like his brilliant production of Cav/Pag from a couple of years ago, it seems pretty standard and then all of a sudden, BAM! something you never saw coming.
Il Viaggio a Reims is full of exciting arias, which should the audience watch out for and what has been the most rewarding piece to sing?
Definately all the ensemble work. Rossini was the master of this sort of big ensemble writing, one person starts then another joins, then another and so on till you have fourteen voices blended so well it’s like a symphony. Take the ‘gran pezzo’ for example, it starts with an acapella section with all the principals singing unaccompanied and builds and builds to the most thrilling climax. And the only way for it to work, is to have a conductor who knows how it should be shaped and paced, whilst being able to get the best playing and singing out of everyone. And we definitely have that in Daniel Smith, a great communicator and leader, who makes his hometown conducting debut with this season.
What are some unforgettable experiences you've had with Opera Australia and what are you looking forward to in the future?
OA has given me SO many great experiences, since joining the company nearly a decade ago. I’ve sung over 400 performances across 25 or so roles. I’ve sung dream roles like Ernesto in Don Pasquale and Almaviva in The Barber of seville, shared the stage with some of the worlds greatest singers like Ferruccio Furlanetto, Emma Matthews, Ermonela Jaho and Jessica Pratt, had some of the most memorable moments on stage with very special performers like Kanen Breen, Taryn Fiebig, Jacqui Dark, Jane Ede, Dominica Matthews and Richard Anderson. Plus I get to walk up to one of the most iconic buildings in history, go inside and do something I love. I don’t think about the future too often, if I can help it, if you had told me 15 years ago (when I was working as a chef) that I’d be a professional opera singer, I’d have laughed and then gone back to chopping parsley.
Why should audiences come and see Il Viaggio a Reims? What can they expect?
Because I can’t imagine they’ll get another opportunity any time soon, certainly not in a production as special as this one, or with a cast as cohesive and entertaining.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
Phantom on the West End, Hello Dolly on Broadway, Tosca at the MET, Faust at OA.
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
New York or Japan
Dream show to create?
La Fille du Regiment (though if I’m honest, I’ve already had that dream come true with McVicar’s Don Giovanni and Murphy’s Merry Widow)
Plays or musicals or operas?
I would have to say Musicals, because I can relax and not be constantly thinking about what’s happening back stage or in the pit or the technical side of things.
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
I am obsessed with learning about our planet’s history/space and love fixing things and building things for the house.
What’s next for you after this show?
I return to Turandot with OA in Melbourne and then The Barber of Seville with State Opera of South Australia.
Il Viaggio a Reims is running at the Sydney Opera House until November 2, so grab your tickets quick so you don't miss out! You can get your tickets here.