Gioachino Rossini’s comic opera, La Cenerentola, here titled Cinderella, is full of vibrantly-colored costumes, wild wigs, a thrilling gallop of a score, charming voices, and delightfully cavorting mice – well, giant-sized rats – but is it funny and family friendly? Stage Director Joan Font has indeed pulled out all the stops in choreographed scenes and comic business, but he has also somewhat darkened this fairy tale by making it all a story within a story. The young heroine, (Angelina in this interpretation,) dreams of escaping a life of neglect and abuse in her own home by imagining a prince coming to her rescue, but, in the end, she is left back in her hard life.
It may be titled “Cinderella,” but there is no question who the star of the production is. When conductor Speranza Scappucci took her place at the podium, her shining face and her curly locks tamed into a golden braid, she seemed so young and fresh that she herself might have played the fairy tale princess. But when she lifted the baton and launched into the overture, there was no mistaking this lady was a conducting pro. There is nothing quite as thrilling as a Rossini overture, and Scappucci took us on the ride of our lives. In the words of opera musicians, Scappucci has a “very clean stick.” She whipped the orchestra through Rossini’s racing score with assurance and clarity, and when occasionally a singer got ahead in the tongue-twisting ensemble numbers on opening night, she strongly but calmly pulled the singer back. She made Rossini as exciting as Ben Hur at the chariot races!
Back in 1817, Rossini was facing a deadline and had to come up with an opera in short order. In desperate search for a suitable theme, Rossini was holding a team meeting when Charles Perrault’s fairy tale Cendrillon came up as material for an operatic adaptation. “Can you get me an outline overnight?” Rossini purportedly asked the librettist. “Can you write a score?” quipped Jacopo Ferretti. They wrote the entire opera in one month. You could say these were the original Mad Men.
In order to accomplish this, Rossini stole from the best – himself. You might call it musical recycling. He also plucked stock figures from his Barber of Seville, using his proven recipe for the creation of this comic opera.
Out went the familiar pumpkins, fairy godmother, and glass slipper from the original fairy tale. (The glass slipper was supposedly scratched due to censorship issues of 1817 involving the showing of a woman’s ankle and was replaced by a bracelet with bling.) The wicked stepmother was also tossed, replaced by a greedy, vainglorious father, a baron, who seeks access to political power by pimping his daughters. Such an official involved in corruption and graft would be perfectly suited as a boffo bass role because to Rossini that male voice would be sure-fire funnier.
The challenge now is how to make classic comic opera funny for today’s audience. Paolo Bordogna, who plays the father, has the size of presence and voice to make this character larger than life. He has some well-timed comic business, but sometimes, it seemed forced. By the time he was waving the audience to applaud for him and descending into vaudeville camp, his portrayal was way too over-the-top for my taste.
The staging and costuming helped pull off some genuine laughs as did the nifty playing of some of the cast. I thought the show’s comedy most successful in the business between the Prince and his valet, Dandini, when they switched costumes and thus their relationship of class and power. Maxim Mironov plays the prince, Don Ramiro, and his growing frustration with his valet, (Simone Alberghini), and the valet’s relishing his new power in their role reversal was very funny indeed. Mironov and Alberghini are well matched and deft at playing off each other.
The evil sisters, played by Domingo-Cafritz young artists Jacqueline Echols and Deborah Nansteel, were a delightful testament to the physical training and comic sensibilities honed in WNO’s training program. In their opening, donning costumes of frilly pantaloons and oversized bum-rolls as big as inner tubes, and with candy-floss colored hair piled pompadour-high, these two singer-actors comported themselves with gleeful spite and clownish physicality, and later made the come-uppance of this vain duo wickedly satisfying.
Most popular with the audience on opening night was the chorus of six rodents who scratched, scurried and gamboled throughout every scene. They were so darn cute, however, they distracted from the story’s action, including some of the main arias and ensemble numbers.
But this is an opera review, so let’s talk about the singing. The singers tackled the opera’s quintets, sextets and septets fearlessly and at full tilt. Mironov was splendid as the Prince and his bel canto tenor voice proved a model for this style of singing with its rapidly ascending and descending ornamentation and beautiful high notes. No wonder he is considered one of the best Rossini tenors of his generation! Baritone Alberghini is terrific and a favorite at WNO, having played many roles with the company. In his duet with Don Magnifico, “Un segreto d’importanza,” they make magic with their dazzling speed-chase of a duet. Echols and Nansteel have voices that continue to mature and grow in size. I was particularly impressed with Echols high soprano agility and power.
Shenyang sang the role of Alidoro, the tutor to the prince who helps in the search for the right woman to become queen. He has the vocal and physical gravitas to carry off the moral voice of the story.
I was tickled by all the ensemble pieces and perhaps especially in the number “Questo e è un nodo avviluppato” where they coordinated their singing with tricky hand choreography. Imagine “Itsy Bitsy Spider” done as visual counterpoint to map the difficult vocal lines.
Isabel Leonard is the calm center of this production, and both physically and vocally she achieved this with grace. Angelina, is meant to be a symbol of virtue, modesty, and charity. Quite frankly, these are qualities that are hard to get too excited about on today’s stage. Director Font’s take on this opera didn’t make it easier and kept the character from “leavening” for the entire first act. Leonard was required to walk in a mostly slow, grounded way and gesture minimally. In the entire opera, except for one scene at the ball, including her coronation, she wore her “Cinders” dress. The production reminds us that all that is happening is only her imaginative storytelling.
Leonard does not have a large voice but her mezzo sound is lovely and most effective in communicating the unworldly purity of the girl. Her singing was especially effective in the second act. A pity that too often she was quarantined to the upstage region by the massive fireplace and had to sing slightly in shadow or eclipsed by those frisky rats!
May 9 – 21
Washington National Opera at
The Kennedy Center
2700 F Street, NW
3 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $300
Tickets or call (202) 467-4600
There was one fabulous visual moment when Leonard descends the steep staircase in an all-white above-ankle gown over an exaggerated bell-shaped panier and, I believe, turquoise-blue sunglasses where I felt I had a handle on the eclectic playfulness of this director and design team from Spain. Except for the puzzling industrial stone staircase and giant chimney which had the effect of making the stage drab. Albert Faura’s lighting was so dark at times it made problems for the singers’ ability to communicate emotions. Most egregious were moments of Font’s staging where some piece of major action or number was upstaged – Alidoro’s entrance down the strong flight of steps while a key scene was being attempted downstage or the ubiquitous aforementioned rodents.
Has this Italian-sung collaboration of the Houston Grand Opera Association, the Welsh National Opera, Gran Teatre del Licceu, the Grand Théâtre de Genève, and Washington National Opera made this an accessible opera for English speaking children? The visuals and comedy at times say ‘yes’. And at others, suggest the designers had something else in mind.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still plenty to enjoy, whether you’re in the Kennedy Center Opera House or out at Nationals Park Saturday night, May 16th where it will be simulcast as part of WNO’s annual M&M Opera in the Outfield.
In Italian with projected English titles.
Cinderella (La Cenerentola) . Composed by Gioachino Rossini . Libretto by Jacopo Ferretti . Directed by Joan Font . Conducted by Speranza Scappucci . Featuring Isabel Leonard, Tara Erraught, Maxim Mironov, David Portillo, Simone Alberghini, Paolo Bordogna, Valeriano Lanchas, Shenyang, Deborah Nansteel, and Jacqueline Echols . Set and Costume Designer: Joan Guillén, Lighting Designer: Albert Faura . Choreographer: Xevi Dorca . Co-produced by Washington National Opera, Houston Grand Opera Association, the Welsh National Opera, Gran Teatre del Licceu, the Grand Théâtre de Genève . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.