A Stunningly Inventive Fairy-Tale Triumph

14/01/2013

United StatesUnited States Rossini, La Cenerentola: Seattle Opera, soloists, Giacomo Sagripanti (conductor), McCaw Hall, Seattle, 12.1.2013 (BJ)

Cast:

Clorinda: Dana Pundt
Tisbe: Sarah Larsen
Angelina (Cenerentola): Daniela Pini
Alidoro: Arthur Woodley
Don Magnifico: Patrick Carfizzi
Don Ramiro: René Barbera
Dandini: Brett Polegato

Production:

Joan Font (director)
Joan Guillén (set and costume design)
Albert Faura (lighting)
Kiko Planas (revival lighting design)
Joyce Degenfelder (hair and makeup)
Xevi Dorca (choreographer)
David McDade (chorus master)
Philip A. Kelsey, David McDade, Jay Rozendaal (musical preparation)
Jonathan Dean (English supertitles)

 

Critical balance be damned! If you like pleasure, and if you live anywhere within striking distance of Seattle, I implore you most urgently not to miss the chance of experiencing one of the most wonderful evenings in the theater you are likely ever to encounter.

The work itself, subtitled “Goodness Triumphant,” is a masterpiece worthy to stand beside The Barber of Seville, which was written just a year earlier, but very different in character. Rossini’s Cinderella, set to a fine libretto by Jacopo Ferretti based on Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon and several intervening librettos, may lack Barbiere’s wealth of memorable tunes, but it makes up for this by its inexhaustible zest and, even more importantly, by its greater emotional depth. Whereas the earlier work is essentially satirical, or at the very least unflattering in its view of humanity, Cenerentola, for all its humor, is at bottom a statement about how a good person should live his or her life.

As for the zest—well, not even Beethoven at his most unbuttoned could rival Rossini’s gift for sheer irresistible rhythmic verve. There are several ensembles in this work that combine that quality with the dynamic effect of the famous “Rossini crescendo.” One that resembles the superb sextet that closes the first act of Barbiere is indeed less tuneful, but it is by no means less consuming in its ability to sweep the listener along.

Previously seen in Barcelona, Cardiff, Geneva, and Houston, Seattle Opera’s production is in every way masterly. Traveling production teams are not a common phenomenon, but this staging comes from such a team—Messrs. Font, Guillén, Faura, and Dorca, who are based in Barcelona.

Their approach to Cenerentola is stunningly inventive, yet (aside from one idea of questionable legitimacy that emerges at the end of the work, and that I think best left to make its impact undivulged by me) it never disrespects what this opera is about, or indeed what opera as a genre is about. They have added a group of six giant rats to the cast. Often such additions end instead by subtracting from the effect of the work they are imposed upon. But these charmingly stylized creatures function rather like a non-vocal counterpart to the chorus of ancient Greek theater—they observe the action in a manner at times silently sardonic, at others (especially in relation to the heroine) almost explicitly caressing; and they also double as a useful team of scene-shifters. The actual male chorus, meanwhile, sang well and made a suitably comical bunch of courtiers. There was also some positively hilarious fooling around with movable panels, and with horses and carriages both large and miniature.

Yet the Barcelona team also knows when to leave well alone. Aside from the sleekly polished playing the 30-year-old conductor Giacomo Sagripanti (in his U.S. debut) was drawing from the orchestra, one of the first things I enjoyed was what was happening on stage while the overture was played. Nothing happened on stage: Font was wise enough to leave the curtain down, unlike all those tiresome “clever” directors who think their public unable to survive for ten minutes without some stage business to entertain it, thus depriving us of that marvelous sense of mysterious anticipation that goes with an unraised curtain.

Also making her U.S. debut was the Italian mezzo-soprano Daniela Pini—and for once, as the work demands but as too often doesn’t happen, the singer in the title role was the shining star of the show. Ms. Pini is a totally delightful Cenerentola, both to look at and to listen to. I am not in a position to compare her voice directly with that of Cecilia Bartoli, because I have never heard Bartoli sing the role in the theater. But the voice we heard in this performance is both lustrous in tone and sufficiently strong, and the technique Pini produces it with is fully Bartoli-esque in clarity and precision: every note in the countless scale passages Rossini gave her to sing was cleanly separated from its neighbors, while at the same time forming part of a beautifully smooth overall legato.

In dramatic terms, while the two unpleasant sisters and the venal stepfather who make Cinderella’s life a misery are pasteboard figures along Dickensian lines, this Cinderella is much more like one of Trollope’s more three-dimensional and profoundly—not just conventionally—virtuous heroines. It is her goodness that triumphs in the end. And René Barbera—making his company debut as the prince who is by the opera’s end perhaps beginning to realize what an amazing stroke of good fortune it has been for him to find this sterling life-partner—was by no means unworthy of her. This is a tenor who can project a powerful top note without yelling. The technique in this case was excellent if not quite as pointedly precise as Pini’s, the tone attractive, and the dramatic aspect of his performance thoroughly convincing.

One member of the cast who really surprised me was the Canadian baritone Brett Polegato, who had an uproarious whale of a time as the prince’s valet Dandini. I have only seen and heard Polegato before now in serious roles, but he demonstrated a quite masterly comic gift, and his singing rivaled Pini’s in its precision and accuracy. No surprise at all was the sympathetic and authoritative Alidoro of Arthur Woodley, for this New-York-born bass is a stalwart who is seen in many Seattle productions.

The evening’s nastiness was skillfully supplied by the strong-voiced Patrick Carfizzi, as Don Magnifico, a self-glorifying fool of Molièrian bumptiousness, and by two members of the Seattle Opera Young Artists program, Dana Pundt and Sarah Larsen, who sang well and fell short in their portrayal of the two ugly sisters only by not being at all strikingly ugly.

I had hoped to see the second cast—the so-called “silver cast”—on the day after the first night, so that I could report on the three cast changes it was to feature in a combined review. As it turned out, the tenor scheduled for that performance was incapacitated by a throat ailment. So I now hope to see a second-cast performance next week, and plan to submit a post-script to this review at that time.

For now, however, I can only conclude by repeating my advice. Don’t miss this wonderful production of this wonderful opera.

Bernard Jacobson

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