Even Rossini didn’t think that “The Voyage to Reims” had much of a future after it was performed four times for the coronation of Charles X of France. Fortunately, the National Opera of the Netherlands under the direction of Damiano Michieletto thought otherwise, and has turned a silly story with glorious music into an ingenious and even stunning production. And the setting is glorious, but with a past.
After decades of controversy, the National Opera and Ballet building was built in 1982, combining the City Hall and Opera House in one space. When construction began, rioters protested many aspects of the building — its cost, its vast size, and the destruction of many medieval landmarks on the site, once inhabited predominantly by Jewish people who died in the Holocaust. The building was nicknamed the Stopera after the protests, and the name stuck for years. Now I notice they are rebranding, with National Opera and Ballet in large letters atop the building. Set right beside the Amstel River across from historic buildings whose reflections glimmer at night, the Opera House was bound to be a striking contrast to its surroundings.
As we approached from the River side, we could peek inside the huge windows to see the sleek interior. It is definitely in keeping with the Amsterdam tradition of letting in as much pale northern sunlight as possible, and encouraging others to see in. Even in private homes, curtains are often left open so that people can see indoors. Coming closer to the building, we began to see more details, including the suspended balconies which all look into the main, immense lobby, providing excellent vantage points to look back out and see up and down the River.
Once we got settled in the red-red second balcony with a program, we grasped the fundamentals of the opera’s plot. It didn’t take long: a group of aristocrats are supposed to travel to Reims for the coronation but don’t, and instead entertain each other. (The first half hour is taken up with a woman throwing a fit because a piece of luggage has been lost, which gives you an idea of the richness of the story’s arc!)
To the extent that we had an image in mind of where aristocrats might disport themselves, it was certainly some pastoral vale gussied up with urns and columns. Instead, to our delight, the curtain rose on the following:
We were treated to a completely other, surreal experience while Rossini was sung unimpeded: a gallery opening of “The Golden Lily” and all it takes to put it in place. It was a romp of brilliant staging, which I won’t spoil for you in case some of you are lucky enough to see it one day. But if you’d like to see some professional photos and read a proper review, look here.