If only travel could always be so much fun.
The wacky aristocrats, social butterflies and flighty hotel servants who collide in Rossini's Il viaggio a Reims - The Journey to Reims - came buoyantly to life Saturday night as the Kirov Opera opened its fifth annual visit to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The inventive, whirlwind production of Rossini's infrequently staged work lit up not just the stage but the whole of the theater.
The idea of characters coming down aisles or making some sort of contact with audience members is nothing new, but director Alain Maratrat took that once-innovative device and ran with it.
In Maratrat's version, singers are all over the place: scrambling on and off a runway that extends from the stage well into the opera house; landing in the laps of unsuspecting opera-goers; nearly tumbling out of balconies. Somehow, none of this gets tiresome as the director draws cast and audience alike into the same, slightly loopy world.
Il viaggio a Reims was intended as an "occasional piece," written to celebrate the 1825 coronation of a French king, Charles X, at the Reims Cathedral. On the surface, the plot can seem awfully slight.
Travelers from various countries are delayed on their trip to the coronation and hang out at a hotel awaiting fresh horses for their coaches.
When no horses can be found, everyone decides to take public conveyances to Paris, where the new king is headed, for more festivities. Before they leave, the guests throw a party at the hotel, where each sings a song from his or her native land.
OK, so The Barber of Seville it ain't. But there is some deft humor in the libretto, and Rossini poured into the score a wealth of engaging melodic activity, much of it wry, even satirical. What the Kirov staging does is liberate the opera from all potentially dusty elements and concentrate on the sheer fun of it.
That fun started Saturday night even before the orchestra tuned up, as a servant vacuumed the stage and folks started arriving noisily, including musicians in white ties and white tails. Eventually, Valery Gergiev, the Kirov's artistic and general director, made his entrance down the Opera House aisle, sporting a bowler hat.
Gergiev kept that hat on as he conducted what looked like the dance orchestra of a posh 1920s nightclub, seated at the back of the stage, rather than in a pit, and framed by a curving staircase. (Pierre-Alain Bertola designed the sleek set, Mireille Dessigy the smile-inducing costumes.
The updating of the time period worked well, especially for the character of Contessa de Folleville, a fashionista given deliciously over-the-top couture to match Rossini's deliberately over-the-top vocal frills. Larisa Yudina sang and acted up a storm in that role.
Other standouts in the young cast: Anastasia Kalagina as the hotel owner; Eduard Tsanga as a shy British nobleman; Irma Gigolashvili as the flowery poetess Corinna. Daniil Shtoda, who arrived on a skittish horse, did not negotiate all of the music's turns neatly but offered lots of style as Count di Libenskoff. Likewise for fellow tenor Dmitry Voropaev (Cavalier Belfiore), who made his entrance putting a golf ball.
All of the principals, even those whose pitch drooped a little or whose tone lacked heft, added to the vibrant spirit of the proceedings. Same for the chorus.
The orchestra, led by Gergiev with calm authority, rhythmic zest and considerable nuance of phrasing, was a major asset in a production that managed to respect the essence of Rossini's original creation while enhancing just about every little thing in it.
The Kirov Opera's residency continues with Verdi's "Falstaff" at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and with Shostakovich's "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk" (concert version) at 3 p.m. Feb. 4. All performances at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Virginia and New Hampshire avenues Northwest, Washington. Tickets are $45 to $195. Call 800-444-1324.