The Journey to Reims, performed by the English Touring Opera, was well received by a packed audience at the Gala Theatre in Durham, on 28 March. This Opera celebrates the coronation of King Charles. Not our King Charles, but King Charles X of France, who ascended the throne in 1824. He was a Bourbon King and his royal family, not for the first time, was somewhat dysfunctional with diatribes between kings and their spouses or brothers.
In the 19th century coronations were opportunities for celebrations, pageantry, and parties. Not much has changed since then. The Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini was commissioned to write an opera as part of these celebrations: it was first performed at the Théâtre Italien in Paris in 1825.
Gioacchino Rossini may be more widely known for the Barber of Seville, but the Journey to Reims is also highly enjoyable.
The plot is about a group of travellers, from all over Europe, on their way to attend the coronation of Charles X in Reims. The travellers are stranded in the Hotel of the Golden Lily, as horses are not available to reach Reims.
Lost luggage, intrigue and romance are all taking place until when the guests decide that they may as well celebrate in the hotel with each of them contributing a musical performance, which turns out to be a playful caricature of each of the nationalities.
Opera at the Gala Theatre, Durham
At the Gala theatre I was lucky enough to secure a front row seat in the stalls. Thus, I could either look down at the orchestra or I could look up at the singers performing on the stage.
Operas are sung in their original language, Italian in this case, but even native Italian speakers may struggle to capture all the words. However, the precise words do not matter that much, as opera is mostly about musicality and emotions.
Having said that, there were monitors on each side of the stage providing live translations (supertitles), which help to follow the plot.
Opera and musicals
Operas in the 19th century occupied the space now largely taken over by musicals. Opera required powerful singers, who could be heard across the theatre, as there were no microphones. Operas were also almost exclusively singing performances unlike musicals, in which songs are interspersed with dialogue.
It would be wrong to pigeonhole opera as intellectual, as opposed to musicals being an expression of popular music. These two genres just flourished at different times. Operas were actually quite popular in older times.
Opera diversified into a number of different styles, with lighter shorter formats becoming known as Operetta. The English composers Gilbert and Sullivan made a major contribution to this genre. Operettas were sometimes performed to loud interactive audiences, a bit like modern pantomimes.
Many more music genres have emerged since the opera peak time in the 19th century. Understandably, Opera now occupies more of a niche market. However, a night at the opera is still very enjoyable and opera deserves to survive.
Opera into the future
Opera faces a unique challenge: it needs an orchestra as well as stage singers and performers. This makes it a very expensive to produce. Arts Council England has been asked to rethink the way in which Opera is subsidised, but the new plans may have faults.
Interestingly, opera has been used in advertising in recent years, with ads ranging from “just one cornetto” to “go compare”. Advertisements based on Opera songs connect with customers at an emotional level.