|Philippe L'Esperance and Hongni Wu in Rossini's La Cenerentola|
Once upon a time our parents read us the softened version of Cinderella, cleaned up so as not to frighten small children; you know, the Disneyfied version. Since then we have read the original violent and scary versions by Charles Perrault and Wilhelm Grimm.
We do not know which version librettist Jacopo Ferretti adapted but he wrote the libretto in three weeks (repurposing some music already written), replacing the wicked step-mother with an abusive step-father and the fairy godmother with the kindly tutor Alidoro. Similarly, the glass slipper was replaced by a bracelet. It is believed that the circumstances of production in 1817 did not allow for elaborate magical effects.
Nonetheless, there are elaborate magical effects in the music, created by Gioacchino Rossini in barely more than three weeks! That guy could sure work under pressure. He was but 25 years old and already had Il Barbiere di Siviglia under his belt. We love Rossini for his sparkling tunes, his lively ensembles, and also because he wrote such great roles for the mezzo-soprano fach.
Last night we attended a performance of this comic masterpiece held at the very suitable Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, utilized because the theater at Manhattan School of Music is under construction. We had the most marvelous time!
Everything worked in concert to provide an evening that proved that high culture and entertainment can coexist. Probably, in Rossini's day, opera was just entertainment, but in our time, people expect opera to be a bit forbidding. It doesn't have to be, as this rollicking production has proven.
A highly talented cast revealed not a single weak link. As the much put upon title character, we heard mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu, whose distinctive instrument and engaging onstage presence made a huge impression. We have heard her several times before and will hear her next Sunday at the Met National Council Finals. She fully deserves to win!
This opera cannot work unless the title character wins our heart. We do not care whether she is spunky or submissive, as long as she is engaging. We must want her to win the Prince!
We do want to say a word about technique. We came to the opera directly from a master class with Joyce DiDonato who coached a young mezzo in the final aria "Nacqui all'affanno...Non piu mesta". We are pleased to report that Ms. Wu was not just engaging but vocally perfect--legato where indicated and bursting with fireworks in the fioritura.
Her Prince Ramiro was portrayed by the princely tenor Philippe L'Esperance, also a familiar voice in our ear. His tenor is just as sweet as we would want it and his bearing was aristocratic. But he was not at all stiff. Just watching his face as he observed his valet pretending to be him (and playing it way over the top) was a lesson in "reactive acting". To put a "plus" after the "A", all he needs is a bit more float in the top notes.
Baritone Dongwei Shen created a marvelous character--reveling in the opportunity to play the Prince, and playing it to the hilt. Swathed in red velvet and white "fur" trim, he courted the two step-sisters assiduously and successfully, but he couldn't succeed with Cenerentola whose heart was already stolen. We enjoyed his phrasing and pleasing tone.
Bass-baritone José Luis Maldonado has always impressed us with a voice as large as his frame and an easy dramatic focus that convinces us of whatever character he is playing. Here, he is Cenerentola's mean step-father who has used her patrimony to provide lavishly for his two natural daughters.
Traditionally, Tisbe and Clorinda are played as stereotypically spoiled and vain. We are happy to report that no new ground was broken and we were able to enjoy lots of laughs at their expense. Soprano Kelly Singer as Clorinda and mezzo-soprano Polixeni Tziouvaras as Tisbe were as superb in their vocal harmony as they were vicious in their competitiveness.
The character that makes everything happen is Alidoro, Prince Ramiro's tutor. Bass-baritone Andrew Henry sang with marvelous musicality and was as convincing as the beggar as he was as the guiding force. Who needs a Fairy Godmother when you have such a wise and generous tutor!
Jay Lesenger's direction was always spot on with a number of clever touches that were unique to this production. We loved the scene in which Cenerentola's imagination runs away with her in Act II, Scene 2. Also notable was the scene in which the Prince's courtiers march on in unison, each bearing a rose for the fake Prince to snatch. The courtiers were played by Hyunsung Shin, Zachary Brown, Ethan Fran, Yongjae Lee, Wenjie Ma, Alexander Mason, Tommy Wazelle, and Shuo Yang. Their choral work was stellar, thanks to Miriam Charney.
Less was heard from the Ladies of the Court who only appear in the final scene--Nuriel Abdenur, Xiaotong Cao, Chia-Wen Chen, Qiyu Chen, Sulgi Cho, Peiyao Hu, Shinhye Kim, and Jianing Zhang. Their voices harmonized well and they looked great, thanks to Costume Designer Elizabeth Clancy.
Sets by Peter Harrison worked well. The home of Don Magnifico contained a chimney for Cenerentola to sweep at one end and a vanity at the other end, with dozens of hatboxes stacked up for Tisbe and Clorinda to demonstrate their self-absorption.
To portray the gardens and the vineyards of the palace, there were hedges and arches dropped from the flies and hoisted when not needed. We cannot forget the scene in which Don Magnifico proves his worthiness to become the wine steward with a tastevin around his neck. There is something very funny about well-performed intoxication.
We must say a word about Julie Duro's lighting design. It was an inspired choice to radically darken the stage and highlight the individual who was having a private moment, such as the aforementioned scene when Cenerentola has returned home and is beset by fantasies.
Gary Thor Wedow used his animated hands to elicit a musically marvelous performance from the MSM Opera Orchestra. None of the superb vocal performances could have happened without their devotion to Rossini's melodies.
(c) meche kroop