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Sounds Okay to Me

"Il Viaggio a Reims" was composed as a showcase for the top ten singers of 1825; at City Opera, it showcases a complex new amplification system.

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The New York City Opera's fall season officially opened with Gioachino Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims, and it's probably safe to say that the composer would not have been pleased. Surely one of the most spectacular one-off galas in musical history, the opera vanished from sight immediately after its Paris premiere in 1825, just as it was meant to. Written to celebrate the coronation of Charles X, France's last Bourbon king, the score was carefully tailored to display the specific vocal talents of no fewer than ten prodigious singers, all virtuoso exponents of the demanding bel canto style that ruled in those days. Since Rossini knew that a comparable cast was never likely to materialize again, he withdrew the opera, collected his fee, recycled half the music three years later in Le Comte Ory, and Il Viaggio a Reims disappeared for good -- or so the composer thought.

Little did Rossini suspect that, 150 years later, diligent musicologists would track down and reassemble the score, long since scattered around the world in bits and pieces -- the final chorus turned up only in 1992, at the New York Public Library. The opera has now been completely reconstructed, and it is indeed an extravagant musical feast. The sheer musical invention of Il Viaggio a Reims is staggering, and it would be a shame never to hear it, but Rossini was right. Even in this age of renewed interest in the bel canto repertory, ten singers able to do it justice will probably never be in the same place at the same time.

Essentially a glorious concert in one long act lasting more than two hours (here broken into two acts), the opera hasn't much of a plot, but it does have a wonderfully daffy cast of characters: an international assemblage of travelers lodged at a spa in Plombières, all waiting for a coach (which never arrives) to take them to Charles's coronation at Reims. Each role is amusingly drawn in words and music, and James Robinson's witty staging makes the most of this by encouraging the singers to develop sharply focused personalities, loony but never overdone. Allen Moyer's black-and-pale-green bathhouse décor is not especially attractive or evocative of the period, but never mind. The action bubbles along nicely, even if there's no disguising the fact that only the ladies have the vocal and technical goods to serve Rossini adequately. Sally Wolf as Madame Cortese, the hotel's ditsy hostess; Mary Dunleavy as the fashion-crazed Countess of Folleville; Camilla Tilling as the soulful Roman poetess, Corinna; Paula Rasmussen as the hotly pursued beauty, Marquise Melibea -- all four eagerly seize the moment, occasionally turn a pretty phrase, and generally put their undervoiced male colleagues to shame.

No doubt many disappointed bel canto enthusiasts found their attention wandering to the State Theater's new sound system, listening for signs of how it might affect what they hear. Some critics have already been thrown into a tizzy about the installation, agonizing over a subject fraught with issues that are as much moral as technical. After all, it's no secret that many concert halls and opera houses around the world are now equipped with some sort of acoustic-enhancement technology, but few managements are willing to admit it. At least the City Opera deserves credit for an up-front declaration about its latest and most drastic attempt to improve the theater's controversial acoustics. We've even been assured that the whole thing will be thrown out if it does not come up to expectations after a period of fine-tuning.

Simply put, the system divides the orchestra pit into ten acoustical zones and the stage into fourteen, each governed by a directional microphone. An analog processor separates the music into 108 channels, which are transmitted to 144 speakers, augmenting the way sound is reflected through the house rather than feeding it directly into the auditorium. Ideally, the audience will still perceive the stage as the sound source, since this technology is designed to affect sound reverberation patterns, not their direction or amplitude. That may appear pretty extreme, but the ultimate goal is a worthy one: improved focus, clarity, and balance, not the sort of ear-splitting amplification one gets at a Broadway musical.

That said, I heard no dramatic acoustic alterations for better or worse, at least from my seat in the center of row H in the orchestra. There was no sense of disembodied sounds, voices coming from odd spots in the hall, or unrealistic orchestral balances, all problems that can arise when sound installations of this sort are in use. On the other hand, neither were there any miraculous improvements in the overall acoustic ambience. What struck my ears was more or less business at the State Theater as usual -- in fact, if the City Opera had kept the whole thing a secret, I suspect that few would have even guessed that a new acoustic-enhancement system was in operation. Perhaps it wasn't. Being the suspicious type, I have a hunch that only when the novelty wears thin and our watchdog music critics have nodded off again will the electronic juices really be turned up. If that sneak-attack theory is wrong and the system is already in full operation, then the City Opera is, acoustically speaking, back at square one.


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