United Kingdom Rossini, La Cenerentola: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama / David Jones (conductor), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Cardiff, 27.3.2018. (GPu)
Cenerentola – Sophie Dicks
Clorinda – Rachel Goode
Tisbe – Alex Bork
Ramiro – Rhodri Jones
Alidor – Dragos Ionel
Dandini – André Henriques
Magnifico – Blaise Malaba
Chorus – Xu Jiang, Andra Bernice Chitiul, Osian Bowen, Joël Farine, Lewis Ham, George Horgan, Will Pearson, Rhys Meilyr, Ryan Shore, Jack Bowtell, Will Costello, Tomos Jones, Tim Patrick, Harvey Evans.
Director – Martin Constantine
Designer – Marc Vela Sola
Lighting Designer – Jose Tevar
La Cenerentola (given its vocal demands) is a very ambitious undertaking for any student company – even if the students concerned (at least the soloists) are all postgraduate students engaged on an MA in Opera Performance, several of whom already have some professional experience. I approached this semi-staged production wondering whether more hadn’t been bitten off than could be chewed adequately. I needn’t have been concerned. The show was a joy from beginning to end, full of well-judged comic invention; much of the singing was a delight and the student orchestra played admirably. The whole reminded one what a profound fable about the power of love and forgiveness and the horrors of excessive self-regard and misplaced pride the Cinderella story is, as presented by Rossini and his librettist Giacomo Ferretti. The evening certainly fulfilled the work’s full title – La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo (Cinderella, or the Triumph of Goodness), without ever feeling merely moralistic or didactic.
The student cast clearly benefitted greatly from the inputs made by director Martin Constantine and conductor David Jones. Constantine is Jane Hodge International Chair for Directing at RWCMD; his professional credits include directing productions for many significant companies and theatres. It was interesting to read in his biographical note in the programme, that he is ‘currently writing a book on acting training for singers for Bloomsbury Publishing’; to judge by the performances he elicited from this student cast he is obviously very good at getting singers to act well. David Jones is Conductor in Residence at RWCMD and has worked with numerous major orchestras and opera companies. The input of these experienced professionals had evidently done much to shape and illuminate the work of the students singing and playing here.
Though billed as ‘semi-staged’, all the production lacked was a set. Characters were costumed (sometimes more than once, as it were, in a plot so dependent on disguise and transformation), props were carried on and off stage unobtrusively, lighting and sound effects were well used. Constantine adopted a framing device, whereby the action opened in 2018, with Cenerentola, amidst her work, picking up and reading from an old book of fairy stories. As she does so the stage is transformed in Constantine’s own words into ‘a place and time between the then and now, the real and the imagined’. This ‘mixed’ world contains both a prince obliged to find a wife in a rather strange manner and two sisters endlessly preoccupied by the cameras on their mobile phones. Costumes were essentially modern, with some fanciful additions and adaptations. A ‘reverse’ transformation happens at the end of the production, with Cenerentola seemingly a skivvy once more.
Throughout this pacey production, almost every character convinced (within the stylization of the material) in terms both of psychology and personality. The outstanding performance was that of Sophie Dicks as Cenerentola; all that she did seemed to grow from a real occupation of the character, and she sang superbly. Her voice was rich and warm, but agile enough to cope with Rossinian coloratura. She has already sung with Opera Holland Park and in a good number of recitals; she will surely make a successful career for herself. In a letter of 1852/3 Rossini insists that, in his operas at least, ‘the contralto is the norm against which the other voices and instruments must be gauged’ (Quoted thus in The Cambridge Companion to Rossini, ed. E. Senici, p.192), identifying this voice type as a kind of fulcrum in his work. Considering this letter, Leonella Grasso Caprioli (ibid.) observes that the kind of voice Rossini required was one that had a ‘soft, dark timbre; broad range; natural flexibility; expressivity; powerful agility’. Ms. Dicks is still a developing singer, but she seems already to be in possession of most of these qualities, and the others will surely follow. ‘Her’ Ramiro, Rhodri Jones, though assured in most of what he did, wasn’t quite so special. No one, I imagine, would complain about the absence of the five High Cs in ‘Si ritrovarla, io giuro’. More established tenors have dodged some of the demands of this fiendishly difficult aria. Rhodri Jones, very sensibly, stayed within his comfort zone and sang with skill and taste. There wasn’t though, at least on this first night, a real ‘spark’ either vocally or in his stage presence. The two step-sisters (the Regan and Goneril of Rossinian comedy) were interpreted with vim and panache by Rachel Goode and Alex Bork, both of them vocally certain and successfully investing their characters with an outrageous degree of preening self-regard and vanity, utterly convincing in their blindness to all save their own desires. As their father Magnifico, Blaise Makaba displayed a voice of real power and gravity (at times, however one wished for a bit more in the way of dynamic variety) and a simple, but effective sense of the comic. André Henriques was a delight as Dandini; his comic timing was impressive, and his voice met all the demands placed on it; his general stage presence was thoroughly engaging. Like many more experienced baritones in the role, Dragos Ionel struggled to bring the Prince’s tutor, Alidoro, to any kind of convincing life. Alidoro, in La Cenerentola, takes over many of the functions of the fairy godmother in the classic narrative of Cinderella – his nearest ‘human’ analogy might be Shakespeare’s Prospero (both are, as it were, on-stage theatrical directors and, simultaneously, one of the cast). Shakespeare makes Prospero a magician; Alidoro, on the other hand, is unprovided with either words or music adequate to his being convincing in such a role. That this Alidoro made relatively little impression had more to do with Rossini and Ferretti than with the young singer taking the role.
All the cast benefitted from idiomatic orchestral work under the baton of David Jones, fully supportive, at all points, of singers and action. Rossinian vivacity and rhythmic spring were sustained throughout and all 21 student instrumentalists on stage made important contributions to the considerable pleasure of the evening.
‘Semi-staged’ operas can be unfortunate experiences, neither fish nor fowl – failing to satisfy either as a concert performance or as an opera. Thanks to an impressive cast and orchestra of students and the work of both director Martin Constantine and conductor David Jones, this Cenerentola was a great success. It had more real theatricality (in the best sense of the word) than many a fully-staged opera I have seen over the years. The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama can be thoroughly proud of this production, a great advertisement for the abilities of their best students and for the work that the College does with them.