New Zealand Rossini, La Cenerentola: Soloists, Freemasons NZ Opera Chorus (Chorusmaster: Michael Vinten), Orchestra Wellington, Wyn Davies (conductor), St. James’ Theatre, Wellington, 9.5.2015 (PM)
Angelina (Cinderella): Sarah Castle
Don Ramiro, the Prince: John Tessier
Don Magnifico, Angelina’s stepfather: Andrew Collis
Clorinda, his daughter: Amelia Berry
Tisbe, his daughter: Rachelle Pike
Dandini, the Prince’s valet: Marcin Bronikowski
Alidoro, the Prince’s tutor: Ashraf Sewailam
Director: Lindy Hume
Assistant Director: Jacqueline Coats
Designer: Dan Potra
Lighting: Matthew Marshall
A co-production between New Zealand Opera and Opera Queensland
New Zealand Opera boss Stuart Maunder, in welcoming patrons to the company’s opening Wellington night of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, quoted Albert Einstein’s words regarding fairy tales: “the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than any talent for abstract, positive thinking”, adding the directive, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.”
No more telling illustration of emotional intelligence is the age-old story of Cinderella, suitably enriched by its many variants (over a hundred have been documented world-wide!). We commonly refer to the basic rags-to-riches story refracted through Charles Perrault’s perfumed 1697 retelling, seized upon in more recent times by the saccharine-soaked Disney machine, but there are earthier, less perfumed alternatives, such as the Brothers Grimm version, if generally thought a bit too brutal for very youthful sensibilities.
La Cenerentola was the 25th of Rossini’s operas, a wondrous achievement for a composer not yet twenty-five years of age! Written in a whirlwind 24 days, the composer “borrowed” pieces of music from his previous work to save time, pieces such as the overture to a work from the previous year, La Gazetta, and enlisted the help of an assistant Luca Agolini, to write three of the numbers and parts of the recitative. Rossini later added an important aria, the impressively serious “La, del ciel nell’arcano profondo” (In the arcane depths of Heaven) for a particular singer in an 1820 series of performances in Rome.
The work seriously rivalled in popularity the composer’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, but as the contralto coloratura kind of voice became less common, the work began to fade from the repertoire. It took a resurgence of singers of this type for the work to regain ground in the twentieth century – firstly Conchita Supervia, Fedora Barbirei, Giulietta Simionato, and Marina de Gabarain, and more lately,Teresa Berganza, Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, Cecilia Bartoli and Joyce di Donato.
Rossini’s, or rather his librettist Feretti’s version of the story draws from Perrault, though with some amendments to the latter’s version; there’s a stepfather rather than a stepmother, no fairy godmother, no glass slipper, no coach or footmen, and no midnight clock. Very properly, the stepsisters aren’t portrayed by Feretti as “ugly” (the chorus actually addresses the two as “…. lovely daughters of Don Magnifico”), nor is anything too one-sided made of Cinderella’s physical charms as Perrault does (“a hundred times more beautiful than her sisters”). The Grimms very properly emphasize the threat posed by the stepsisters by describing them as “fair of face but foul of heart”, a harsh view which the opera softens, allowing Cinderella some scope for forgiveness of and reconciliation with them and her stepfather at the story’s end.
The opera’s point is that people’s attitude and behaviour define their beauty and attractiveness – and of course those are the things in which the step-sisters don’t measure up. Reinforcement of this principle from Feretti and Rossini comes at the beginning of the opera’s Act One Finale, where the Prince, disguised as his own manservant, asks the “pretend” Prince (who’s been consorting with the stepsisters), “What are those two like? I want truth and precision” – which suggests that the Prince, having seen both of the girls, is after “character references” rather than any further appraisals of physical beauty.
For this production, director Lindy Hume and her assistant Jacqueline Coats moved the action forward from Perrault’s time and across the Channel to the late Victorian era in London, linking the traditional story with another famous rags-to-riches tale, that of Dickens’ Oliver Twist. As with many “updating of opera stories, the setting finds itself somewhat at odds with the libretto, here as regards the social placement of Cinderella’s “step-family”, very much in the mercantile rather than the “aristocratic” class, and at its “lower” end.
Had the shop-owner/stepfather, Don Magnifico been more ostensibly linked with the upper classes – perhaps as a “ruined peer” whose family had fallen on hard times – there might have seemed to us more “point” to his and his daughters’ referral to themselves in the story as “people of high rank” and “select company” and thus to their contemptuous treatment of Cinderella. But their position as “emporium owners” seemed hardly to qualify their aspirations to connect with royalty or put on airs at all! And even given the “romance” of the idea of royalty “stooping to conquer for love” it seemed doubtful that a prince would ever consider investigating the “low life” as was presented here.
The deployment of the chorus also raised my eyebrows early on, being used as a kind of Dickensian Neighbourhood Watch in the opening scene, the characterizations straight out of A Christmas Carol, and the street life of London. It was these people who brought leaflets and pamphlets which announced the intention of the prince to visit the family with a view to choosing a bride. Later the chorus became the Prince’s country-house entourage, but with certain members indulging in some interesting cross-dressing, and at one point some rather arch interactions with the Prince in his underwear, the ramifications of which were either too subtle for me, or merely in the innocuous realm of incidental horseplay!
Still – having lit upon these features, the “creative team” did an absolutely splendid job in making the best case for them. Throughout the work the sets, designs, lighting and deployment of people on and around the stage were, almost without exception, visually compelling and viscerally engaging. Only during the final scene, was there an odd “frozen chorus moment” from the crowds gathered in front of the balcony at what one presumed was Buckingham Palace, cheering and waving flags, and appearing to mark time until the next “thing” happened; also, the Prince and Cinderella were awkwardly separated by an eccentric placement of stairs to and from the balcony. The chorus, however, recovered their poise in this scene in time to enact a deliciously-worked routine to fit the vocal pyrotechnics employed by Cinderella during her final cavatina – “Non piu mesta accanto al fuoco” (No longer sad beside the fire) – a great delight!
Elsewhere, the settings were exemplary – from the library-like wall of books gracing the Prince’s country-house study (though, significantly, whole rows of book-spines were later exposed as mere camouflage for the contents of the Prince’s wine-cellar) through the spectacularly-stocked emporium shelves and benches to the remarkably spacious Georgian “Capability Brown” vistas of the landscape (complete with exquisitely-moulded tree-shapes) around the Prince’s estate, and finally to the already-mentioned Buckingham-Palace like balcony at the end, the scene of Cinderella’s final triumph and her forgiveness and acceptance of her in-laws despite their cruel treatment of her.
As for the singers, each made a positive contribution to the advancement of the drama through deft characterization, and enhanced the performance’s musical values by fine singing. Of course it’s as much an ensemble opera as a vehicle for individual voices, the brilliant and glittering quartets, quintets and sextets by turns tiptoeing and scampering across the stage, the characters invariably finding themselves cheek-by-jowl with their adversaries at cadential points of the story, to everybody’s delight.
Sarah Castle as Angelina (Cenerentola) grew beautifully from out of her surroundings as the evening proceeded – having a softer-grained voice than those of either of her stepsisters (Amelia Berry’s Clorinda and Rachelle Pike’s Tisbe) or her stepfather (Andrew Collis’s Don Magnifico), she sounded a little subdued compared with their excesses in the opera’s first part. And though her scene with Prince Ramiro (disguised as the valet at that stage) brought forth sweetness and subtle vocal interaction from both singers, she struggled to be heard against the ring of John Tessier’s voice in places. It wasn’t until she entered the Prince’s ballroom (though looking every inch a fairy-tale princess, she wasn’t at first adequately disguised, I thought – her face could clearly be seen throughout the veil, which spoiled the point of the entrance) that she moved up a notch or two and gave us the full force of her voice – as if the “real” Cinderella or Angelina was emerging! Her “Sprezzo quei don che versa fortuna capricciosa” (I am indifferent to fickle fortune’s gifts) was strong and nobly phrased, and sung with new confidence. By the end, united with the Prince, her “Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto” (I was born to anguish and tears) was full of noble, affecting tones, warm and ecstatic, as was her spectacularly-delivered, chorus-accompanied “Non piu mesta accanto al fuoco”, commanding and secure.
The stepsisters, Amelia Berry as Clorinda and Rachelle Pike as Tisbe, made a perfect foil for their “rags-to-riches” sister, enjoying their burlesque-like posturings without overdoing things, their voices encompassing a full range of tones and timbres, from bullying and scolding Cinderella to wheedling and simpering in front of the Prince. Their father, Don Magnifico, was played with vocal splendor and great theatrical verve by Andrew Collis, as a somewhat Dickensian equivalent of a man who’s “made it” in his sphere, rather than fallen from grace, which, as I’ve already said, doesn’t quite “go” with the libretto’s drift – more Alfred P. Doolittle, it seemed to me, than Feretti’s and Rossini’s Don Magnifico! Still, his great Act One “dream” aria, delivered to his daughters, with its description and interpretation of his dream of a donkey sprouting feathers, was a comic tour de force!
Cinderella’s partner-to-be, Don Ramiro, was given a boyishly elegant portrayal by Canadian tenor John Tessier, who, like his paramour, leapt out of his somewhat soft-grained vocal manner, and turned on the fireworks when in the thrall of his amours, thrilling the audience with his Act Two “Si ritrovarla io giuro” (Yes, I vow I will find her once more!) with its energetic and spectacular high notes. HIS perfect foil was, of course, the valet Dandini, with whom he swapped identities to better “observe” the ladies. Polish-born Marcin Bronikowski made a great fist of the role, having the time of his life as “prince for a day”, using his fine, ringing voice with a touch of the Laughing Cavalier about his manner, just right for the character.
The most enigmatic figure in the story was the Prince’s tutor and Cinderella’s “surrogate” parent, Alidoro (actually, the “fairy godmother” equivalent to Perrault’s famous character). The Egyptian bass Ashraf Sewailam brought to the role a well-focused voice, a dignified manner and a touch of exoticism with his striking looks. While I enjoyed all of the singers’ performances on this occasion I did wonder (as I’ve increasingly found myself doing when going to NZ Opera productions) why we don’t hear more local singers in the solo roles – three out of seven on this occasion seems to me a marginal number for a company that calls itself NZ Opera, and as such ought to be giving more local singers opportunities to perform alongside established overseas artists. Surely we’ve long since left behind the “overseas is better” idea, and now ought to, without being too parochial, develop a distinctive and unique profile with our own singers (and also designers) by using them more often? How else will things operatic here grow and develop as they ought to?
Controlling the musical ebb-and-flow with as deft a hand as he’s previously demonstrated on many occasions for NZ Opera was maestro Wyn Davies, knitting together the sterling efforts of both chorus and orchestra to bring out for our delight bubbling, shimmering, glowing and deeply satisfying musical textures whose sounds leapt across the footlights and out from the orchestra pit to envelop us in a whole evening’s worth of Rossinian magic. All credit to the players of Orchestra Wellington and to the Freemasons NZ Opera Chorus and Chorusmaster Michael Vinten for the skills and energies they brought to their tasks. The efforts of all concerned entertained, amused and stimulated our sensibilities – but above all, touched our hearts.