By Jane Rosenberg
From dancing rats to pink and yellow bewigged stepsisters to wine soaked courtiers, Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola), as performed by the LA Opera, is a musical, visual, and comedic delight. And if Rossini’s sparkling music isn’t enough to induce you to spend an evening at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with arguably the most beloved heroine of fairy-tale fame, then let me assure you there isn’t a moment that doesn’t entertain in this magical production.
Gioachino Rossini and his librettist, Jacopo Ferretti, conceived a more naturalistic version of the fairytale, convinced that audiences would prefer a more adult approach. Though a pair of matching bracelets has replaced the glass slipper and there are no chimes at midnight, there are more than enough fanciful touches to captivate the youngest of children. And as a writer and illustrator of opera stories for children, I urge you to bring your kids. You might just develop in them a lifelong love of opera.
Created as a co-production of the Houston Grand Opera, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, and two other companies, Joan Guillén’s inventive set and costumes are visual poetry. Mr. Guillén gives us a Commedia dell’Arte universe of brilliant colors and exaggerated shapes – contemporary in execution but with baroque references. His designs are aided and abetted by a crisp palette of lighting designed by Albert Faura. Under the direction of Joan Font, this is a deeply considered and intelligent rendering of Rossini’s classic, gathering together human truths, hilarious acting, bel canto ardor, and subtle yet pitch perfect choreography by Xevi Dorca. An ensemble of six rats prance and tumble through the scenes, adding another dimension to the unfolding action. In an exceptional choreographic passage, Dorca created hand and arm movements for the famous Act II sextet, which enhanced the chaotic emotions of the ensemble as they remark on their mounting confusion.
James Conlon and the LA Opera orchestra presented all the intricacies of Rossini’s overture, from its impish bombast to its transparent delicacy. And though there were one or two occasions in the evening involving a momentary disconnect between the orchestra and the ensemble singing, this was quickly repaired and will most likely resolve itself during the run of the production. All in all, the orchestra propelled us through the ups and downs of the dazzling score with dexterity and quicksilver sound.
As the beleaguered and abused Cinderella, and the most naturalistic character in the piece, the American mezzo, Kate Lindsey, alternates with the Georgian mezzo, Ketevan Kemoklidze. Rossini wrote the role for coloratura contralto and the part requires the astonishing agility and vocal power of a Cecilia Bartoli or Joyce DiDonato. With her sweet, agile voice, Lindsey was overshadowed in the ensembles but fared better in her solo portions – her strength seeming to lie in the higher registers. It wasn’t until the second act finale that she conquered the house and opened up with all the power and articulation one could wish for in this most demanding of roles.
René Barbera as Prince Ramiro made his LA Opera debut. His warm tenor soared, navigating Rossini’s highs and lows with bravura coloratura technique, a firm legato line, and reaching the back of the hall without a hint of strain, as if the house were an intimate toy theater.
In the plum part of the Prince’s valet, Dandini, who is disguised as the Prince for most of the opera, Vito Priante was as foppishly hilarious as he was musically adept. Articulating every phrase, singing with sprightly vigor, he embodied the swaggering Captain of Commedia dell’Arte fame crossed with the willfulness of a cagey Harlequin.
The Italian baritone, Alessandro Corbelli, has made a prominent career in the bel canto repertory worldwide. A seasoned performer, his Don Magnifico, Cinderella’s stepfather, struck the right notes of humor and malevolence. One of the pleasures of Rossini’s version is the substitution of a stepfather, which lends more coherence to the story and allows for one of the most delightful moments in the opera (and there are dozens): the Don’s drunken display atop a wine barrel with the wonderful LAO men’s chorus accompanying him.
As portrayed by Stacey Tappan and Ronnita Nicole Miller, the stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, were an adorable duo. From the moment they appeared in their overstuffed underwear and bright wigs, through every resonant note sung, they inhabited their characters with divine silliness. Soprano Tappan vocalized with agile grace; and Miller, recently heard as the Nurse in LAO’s Flying Dutchman, has a powerful and versatile voice, singing both bel canto and Wagnerian roles successfully.
Bass Nicola Ulivieri was an imposing Alidoro, the Prince’s tutor and Rossini’s stand-in for the fairy godmother. Rich and commanding of voice, his tutor was the character who sets the events in motion and allows the Prince to make the wise choice of a bride in Cinderella.
In the ensemble singing, which is at the core of Rossini’s brilliance, the cast and orchestra conveyed the composer’s staccato phrasing and verbal pyrotechnics. As we approached the apex of the opera, a storm raged and we saw a miniature royal coach collapse outside Don Magnifico’s house. The Prince and Dandini entered, soon to be followed by the climactic E flat ensemble (Questo è un nodo avviluppato). With its rolling Italian r’s, it’s one of Rossini’s spellbinding achievements. One by one, each singer broke away to sing of their bewilderment at the turn of events. Last night’s rendition was satisfying, if a bit light on the fluttering r’s.
The grand finale takes place at the wedding banquet. Having induced the Prince to forgive the cruelties of her insufferable family, Cinderella rejoiced. We experienced the final enchantment of the evening, as silver confetti rained down like mirrored snow. If only we could revisit this fairytale world every year – make it a holiday institution like Balanchine’s Nutcracker. One can dream.
Photos by Robert Millard. Stepsister drawing by Jane Rosenberg.
To read more reviews and posts by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
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Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children. Jane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.