OPERA / Cox's cast of rotten apples: Bayan Northcott on the common marketing of Covent Garden's new Rossini

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AS the most famous opera composer in the world and, by then, a resident of Paris, Rossini could hardly avoid offering a contribution to the extravagant coronation festivities for Charles X of France in 1825. What he and his librettist Luigi Balocchi came up with was quite naughty, all the same.

Il viaggio a Reims is set in a spa hotel in which notables from all over Europe have gathered on their way to the actual coronation. There is a Parisian comtesse who throws a mad scene over the fancied loss of a hat, an absurdly stiff English milord, a Russian general and a Spanish admiral who are soon on the verge of a duel, an Italian poetess out of Madame de Stael, given to bardic rhapsodies with her lyre, and so on.

When it becomes apparent that there are no horses to continue the journey, they all decide to have a party on the spot. Much merriment is derived from a contest of national airs, but by the end of the evening, no one has got a step nearer Reims. It is the ultimate anti-plot. It almost became the ultimate un-opera.

For no sooner had it completed four triumphant performances than Rossini began to dismember the score of what he evidently felt was a mere occasional piece. About half the music ended up in Le Comte Ory. The rest was virtually thrown away.

Not till the 1970s was the opera reconstructed - emerging as one of Rossini's most sustained and polished efforts in its deft interweaving of no less than 18 principal singers and its endless ingenuity of harmony and orchestration. It was delectably recorded by an international cast under Claudio Abbado in 1986 and last Saturday reached Covent Garden in a production jointly celebrating the bicentenary of Rossini's birth and the inauguration of the festival for Britain's six-month presidency of the European Community. With a cast led by Montserrat Caballe no less, as the hotelier, a lavish provision of all-dancing production numbers, sets with real fountains, etc, etc, it was soon apparent that no expense had been spared.

But, oh, for a pennyworth of taste] Doubtless part of the problem these days was assembling even half a cast capable of getting around Rossini's fine-spun roulades. The rest seemed fatally tempted to compensate by mugging - not excluding even the great Caballe, who conducts a running gag with the prompter, most of which fails to reach the back stalls.

Presumably the Granny Smith motif that runs through Mark Thompson's garish designs is a gag about Common Market apple wars; Kate Flatt's culminating ballet of flags duly ends in Britain running off with Denmark. John Cox's manic direction frequently suggests a diabolic conjunction of Wendy Toye and Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. How, for the sake of his best past work, one could wish this too were a gag.

There are pluses. If the fizz from the pit under Carlo Rizzi is highly intermittent, Sylvia McNair floats the poetess's florid lines prettily; Della Jones and Bonaventura Bottone as the Polish widow and the Russian general make something electric of their Act Three love duet and Alastair Miles is wonderfully foolish as Lord Sidney. What remains nonplussing is that no one in the Royal Opera's artistic superstructure from Opera Director to Dramaturg seems to have realised this no-holds-barred romp was fundamentally unworthy of Rossini's irony and accomplishment. He may have been the most popular composer of his era but he was never, ever, vulgar.

Further performances 8, 10, 13, 15, 17 July (071-240 1066)

(Photograph omitted)