HOW often does one get to hear an American premi`ere of a Rossini masterwork written 161 years ago? Opera Theatre of Saint Louis provided opera lovers with just that opportunity last Thursday evening. ``Il Viaggio a Reims'' -- or ``The Journey to Reims'' -- was written to celebrate the coronation of France's King Charles X in 1825. It was also Rossini's work of introduction to Paris, the city he was hoping to make his artistic home. After four wildly successful performances with a cast comprising the finest singers of the day, the composer withdrew this last Italian opera of his composing career. The next year he converted a good half of it into ``Le Comte Ory.''
Because the ``Viaggio'' manuscripts had disappeared, everyone presumed that Rossini improved his music for ``Ory.'' But thanks to the persistence of Philip Gossett, a Rossini scholar, ``Viaggio'' finally came to light in the 1970s. With a good deal of detective work, Mr. Gossett and Janet Johnson from Columbia University were able to piece together a virtually complete ``Viaggio.'' Ms. Johnson edited the performing version heard first in Pesaro, Italy, in 1984, then in Milan, and now in Saint Louis -- the world's first look at an extraordinary piece of operatic writing since the work was withdrawn by the composer after the performance of Sept. 12, 1825.
The opera calls for eight star virtuoso singers, three other first-rate talents, seven expert character singer/actors (known in opera as comprimari), and a strong, eloquent chorus. The flimsy plot deals with a group of titled socialites stranded at the Golden Fleur-de-Lys spa hotel, halfway between Paris and Reims, site of the king's imminent coronation. Act 2 finds them staging their own celebration in anticipation of the far more socially desirable parties they will attend in Paris the next day.
The arias are all fast and furious Rossini at his most inspired. And they are all about such deliciously trivial things as the countess who swoons on hearing her wardrobe is ruined, or the Spaniard and the Russian who threaten to duel over a Polish marquise. It is a world in which an offstage poetess can settle an onstage argument with a song. The guests can unite in an elaborate cry of despair when they realize they will be unable to get to Reims to witness the coronation.
The evening was a triumph for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. It put together a mostly remarkable cast, spiritedly directed by Colin Graham and brilliantly conducted by Richard Buckley. The Loretto-Hilton Theatre simply glowed with the company's joyous spirit as this inventive, entertaining opera unfolded.
Graham's staging stressed the interaction of the characters in what is, essentially, a string of showcase arias and ensembles for a gifted cast. There was wit aplenty and a natural flow from one set piece to the next. Neil Peter Jampolis's set allowed the singers to move easily and simply captured the mood of period elegance.
The cast was excellent, with the exception of the strenuously strident Stephanie Friede as Corinna (the soprano poetess who has the most beautiful and dramatically pivotal music of the opera), and the vocally welterweight tenor Gran Wilson as the fiery Libenskof. Among the vocal surprises was soprano Patricia Schuman's gracious, vocally appealing Cortese, mezzo Melanie Sonnenberg's bold yet stylish Melibea, tenor Richard Croft's eloquet and technically agile Belfiore, and Eric Halverson's superbly sung (and enunciated) Don Profundo. Donna Zapola's ravishing presence and vocal promise made her a beguiling Folleville. Also admirable was Jason Hurd's onstage fluteplaying.
It cannot be overstated that Mr. Buckley's conducting -- at once energetic and stylish and always alert to his singers' strengths and needs -- kept the evening on the highest level. The Saint Louis Symphony played exceptionally well for him, and the remarkable chorus gave him its all.
That Opera Theatre could put together this tricky show without the benefit of star singers and big budget spectacle is but more proof that something special happens here when the company puts on its annual June season.
``Viaggio'' will be performed again tomorrow and Sunday.