Although “Cinderella” is among the most familiar of all folk or fairy tales, it apparently exists in over 300 versions, some of them quite gruesome in that they involve incest and bodily mutilation. In the Brothers Grimm account, for instance, the evil mother of the dreadful step-sisters cuts off her daughters’ heels and toes, the better that their mangled, bloody feet will slide into the lost slipper. Later the whole malevolent crew gets their just deserts when vengeful birds (the spirit of Cinderella’s real mother) pluck out their eyes. Still other accounts show Cinderella as the innocent victim of her father’s lust.
It’s perhaps fortunate, then, that the tale that we best know has been filtered through the rose-colored version (1697) of Charles Perrault – although little in that story could prepare us for the treatment it gets from Gioachino Rossini and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti in the opera La Cenerentola. No doubt more than one patron was surprised by Lyric Opera San Diego’s production that began its five-performance run last night in the company’s attractive new Steven and Mary Birch North Park Theater: Where is the fairy godmother? Where is the magic pumpkin coach? The famous glass slipper? Or (for those raised on the wretched Disney version), where are all those darling little mice? Supernatural trappings, however, were of no interest to Rossini whose sentimental, rationalist two-act dramma giocoso is subtitled La bontà in trionfo or Goodness Triumphant. (Parental warning: Your kids may be bored to death!)
A handful of last night’s theatergoers might also have been wondering what happened to all the spoken dialogue one usually encounters in an operetta. Where did all this sing-speaking secco recitative come from? The answer, of course, is La Cenerentola is a full-blown opera, a fine specimen of bel canto mixed with elements of opera seria and opera buffa (opera semiseria), and just about as far from the anodyne banalities of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Cinderella (1957) as it is possible to get. In other words, the Lyric Opera is feeling its oats. After years of largely lighter fare (with some notable exceptions including The Bartered Bride and Abduction from the Seraglio), the company, in its very own home, is going mano a mano with its big sister, San Diego Opera. Very brave indeed.
Or is it foolhardy? Especially when Rossini demands singers of exceptional agility. If you cannot do the florid stuff, no need to apply. An opera company rarely schedules La Cenerentola unless it’s already signed up (1) a star-quality coloratura mezzo-soprano for Angelina, aka Cinderella; and/or (2) a star-quality lyric-coloratura tenor for Don Ramiro, the handsome prince; and (3) an experienced basso buffo for Don Magnifico, Angelina’s absurdly comic stepfather. It’s also nice to have a soprano and mezzo-soprano buffe duo with the singing and comedic skills needed for Clorinda and Thisbe, the ridiculous daughters of Don Magnifico.
You also need a rather fine bass for Dandini, the Prince’s lowly valet, but a major role nonetheless. (Central to the plot, Dandini and Ramiro must swap identities in order to sort out the fools from the gold, so to speak.) Lastly, yet another good basso is needed for the Prince’s tutor/philosopher, Alidoro, Rossini’s stand-in for the more traditional fairy godmother. Oh – and a cracking good orchestra adept at Rossini’s darting string passages and innumerable crescendos, and, of course, a conductor to lead it all. A clever, innovative stage director wouldn’t hurt either.
Though it would be absurd to compare the Lyric Opera’s current English language effort to the sort of production one might experience at – say, Covent Garden (where I last heard the opera with Vesselina Kasarova as Angelina, Juan Diego Florez as Don Ramiro, and Simone Alaimo as Don Magnifico), what’s going on now in North Park is a “darned good little show,” as I heard one wise man remark. Smartly directed by J. Sherwood Montgomery and Leon Natker, it doesn’t blaze in the forefront of theatrical innovation, but it serves the Rossini opera well, and the cast is remarkable, especially considering the musical challenges involved. This is bel canto at its craziest, full of scales and occasional stratospheric high notes that come out of nowhere – and it was nice to feel certain that the two big leads had command of the style and the notes to go with it. In fact, mezzo-soprano Priti Gandhi (Angelina) and tenor John Zuckerman (Ramiro) seemed so secure in what they were doing, they alone would have made the evening a pleasure. They also made an attractive couple to look at, always a bonus in opera. Gandhi glowed at every moment, but nowhere so brightly as in the famous final showpiece, “Non più mesta,” which she sang, of course, in an English translation.
As for the wicked – or should I say, silly and vain stepsisters – they were in hilarious good form thanks to soprano Evelyn de la Rosa (Clorinda) and mezzo-soprano Pamela Laurent (Tisbe). They worked well together, and much to my surprise, de la Rosa even got a big solo coloratura scene all to herself, just before the segue into the final scene. Although this number (about catching a man and plucking all his feathers so he won’t get away) may be in every production of Cenerentola ever given on earth, I cannot recall having heard it before. De la Rosa made the most out this, tippling away at a glass of wine to sooth her sorrows and then showing up a little blotto at the Angelina’s wedding.
It’s difficult to explain this, but despite a certain lack of mastery in Rossini technique, bass-baritone Chris Thompson made a nifty Dandini, cutting a dashing figure and always fun to watch and hear, although the fluttering handkerchief business he was saddled with could easily have been eliminated. He has sung Figaro, I see, but bel canto doesn’t jump out at you from his résumé. Meanwhile, bass Gustavo Halley impressed as a skilled buffo performer dealing with a slightly fraying voice and a faulty memory that required constant line-prompting from the pit. Bass Douglin Murray Schmidt was the Alidoro who was (and this may be the directors’ fault) too ambiguously “magical,” waving his arms about to create a thunderstorm (perhaps) and making other vague gestures that were hard to figure out. Some productions simply clearly costume Alidoro as a sorcerer and leave it at that.
The “original scenic and property designs” of Peter Dean Beck were quite serviceable, although the two movable units supposed to represent rooms in Don Magnifico’s mansion shook like jelly every time someone moved near them. (It is a tumble-down house, to be certain.) And Edward Kotanen’s costume designs looked smashing.
Martin Wright worked miracles with an orchestra, which (if I understand correctly) did two full dress rehearsals only last Tuesday and Wednesday. The band seemed to be tiring as the last act drew to a close (the intonation became less secure), but all in all, it was an impressive achievement with a challenging score.
Cinderella: Priti Gandhi
Clorinda: Evelyn De la Rosa
Tisbe: Pam Laurent
Don Magnifico: Gustavo Halley
Ramiro: John Zuckerman
Dandini: Chris Thompson
Alidoro: Douglin Schmidt
Martin Wright : Conductor
J. Sherwood Montgomery: Director
Scenery & Properties originally designed by Peter Dean Beck
Scenery originally constructed for Cleveland Opera