Special Event, Special Music: Rossini's 'Journey to Reims'

reims-250You might think that an invitation to write music for a special occasion, especially a royal occasion, would present any composer with a great opportunity for lasting success -- and often it does.  But not always.  Just ask Rossini.

For a positive example of "occasional music," there's William Walton and his "Crown Imperial March" -- an intoxicating blend of majesty and exuberance that's now a popular concert piece.  It was originally composed for the coronation of Britain's King Edward VII, and when he famously abdicated before the ceremony, the music easily translated to the coronation of his brother Prince Albert, who became King George VI.

England also provided a coronation piece that not only became a beloved patriotic song, but also translated seamlessly to the other side of the Atlantic.  It's the theme from Edward Elagar's first "Pomp and Circumstance March," now known to Britons as "Land of Hope and Glory," and heard by Americans at graduation ceremonies coast to coast.

On the other side of the coin, there's a more recent coronation piece called the "Koningslied," or "King's Song," written for the investiture of Prince Willem-Alexander as the new king of the Netherlands, in 2013.  It's an unusual combination of sweet sentimentality with a central, rap-like section and some perhaps less-than-regal lyrics.  An online petition denouncing the song quickly gathered some 40,000 signatures, and the song was withdrawn by its creator barely one day after its release.  So, a when it comes to launching brave new music, a royal occasion is hardly a sure thing -- sometimes just the opposite.

Gioachino Rossini's chance at writing music for newly-crowned royalty came in 1825, when he was asked to compose an opera for the lavish coronation ceremonies surrounding the crowning of France's King Charles X.  He came up with Il Viaggio a Reims -- or The Journey to Reims

The opera portrays a large, multi-national group of aristocrats and nobles, all gathered at a spa hotel to prepare for their trip to attend the coronation in Reims -- where the real-life coronation actually took place.

The story is a bit loose-jointed, with Rossini and librettist Luigi Balocchi taking the opportunity to create comical character names for the "foreign" personages, and to poke fun at various, national stereotypes -- at times going over the line into parody, but apparently not far enough to cause serious offense.

By most accounts, the opera was a success at its ceremonial premiere. Still, perhaps because the story is tied so closely to a specific event, it only ran for a few performances.  Rossini was apparently pleased with the music, and for good reason.  The score contains some of his most brilliant vocal writing, including several striking arias and a couple of glorious ensembles.  But the composer  also seemed to sense that the piece just wasn't going to travel well.  So, not wanting the music to go to waste, he took about half the score and recycled it in his more familiar comedy Le Comte Ory.

By now, of course, the special occasion for which the music was written doesn't matter so much -- and the chance to hear an entire opera's worth of glittering music by Rossini is an occasion all its own -- so the original score is being produced more and more often.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents The Journey to Reims from the 2014 Rossini-in-Wildbad Festival, in Bad-Wildbad, Germany.  The opera demands a first-rate, ensemble cast, and this production delivers one, including sopranos Sofia Mchedlisvili and Alessandra Marianelli, mezzo-soprano Laura Giordano, tenors Maxim Mironov and Bogdan Mihai, baritone Bruno Praticò, and bass Bruno De Simone.