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Courtly Confusion: Rossini's 'Voyage To Rheims'

Sometimes, the best stories are found in places where, at first, it seems like there's no story at all — in everything from trendy American movies to bravura Italian operas.

For example, think of the films of Robert Altman. In movies such as A Wedding, Nashville and Ready to Wear, he seems to dispense with a single, overall plotline, in favor of a whole raft of contrasting characters, all with individual stories of their own.

Even in his popular movie Gosford Park, which is ostensibly a murder mystery, the fascination lies less with solving the crime than with Altman's deft handling of multiple storylines and varying emotional textures. It's that complex interweave that makes the film so compelling, while the murder investigation sort of plods along as a framework for it all.

There are also plenty of operas that don't seem to have any single, obviously coherent story — and in some cases, that may not be intentional. But in Gioachino Rossini's 1825 opera The Voyage to Rheims, it's exactly what the composer had in mind.

Actually, despite the title, Rossini's opera isn't about a voyage at all. It's about an assortment of very different people, all stuck in the same place at the same time, and each with his or her own dilemmas to sort out.

There is the mysterious and beautiful poet, the pensive English lord, a love struck Russian general and a frivolous French countess. Not to mention a doting antiquarian, a beguiling Polish Marquise and a fiery Spanish seaman. And — as in Gosford Park — there's an assortment of servants all watching these privileged characters with a potent mixture of amusement and disdain.

The whole thing could seem a bit scatterbrained. But thanks to Rossini's genius for musical profiling, every character seems well worth our acquaintance — and the opera itself is pure entertainment from top to bottom.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Rossini's The Voyage to Rheims in a production from one of the world's great opera houses, and one of the few that can assemble the sort of virtuoso ensemble cast that the opera demands: La Scala, in Milan. The stars include sopranos Patrizia Ciofi, Carmela Remigio and Annick Massis, along with bass Alastair Miles, all led by conductor Ottavio Dantone.

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