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Second Opinion: 'Cenerentola' at WNO

Many thanks to Robert R. Reilly for this review from the Kennedy Center.

Tara Erraught (Angelina), David Portillo (Don Ramiro), and Cast in La Cenerentola, Washington National Opera, 2015
(photo by Scott Suchman)
I seldom go to operas “cold turkey,” i.e., without having seen a prior production or without even having heard the music, but one certainly gets a fresh look by doing so. I went to the Washington National Opera’s production of Rossini’s Cinderella, on the evening of May 11, 2015, on the strength of my great love for The Barber of Seville, perhaps the greatest comic opera ever written. I went expecting to be disappointed since nothing could be as great as The Barber, which Rossini wrote the year before Cinderella, which he dashed off in a matter of weeks. However, I was not disappointed. In fact, I was generally delighted. This opera is almost as musically funny as The Barber and, while the humor in it is very broad (and this production makes it even broader), it makes for a delightfully amusing evening. (This was the first performance of the company's second cast; see Charles's review of the first cast from opening night.)

The production actually looks more like Alice in Wonderland than Cinderella. The vivid costume designs are almost cartoonish, and the acting style is, at times, out of the silent movies, with a lot of mugging. That is not necessarily a criticism, but a description. The whole thing is done in such a lighthearted style, it is difficult to criticize. However, that is what critics do; so I shall express several reservations, along with lavish praise.

First of all, I should say that the singing was uniformly fine. As Cinderella, Tara Erraught was vocally strong (especially in the closing scene), but needed to show more fragility and vulnerability in her characterization of the role. She comes off as too tough, not one to be bossed around by the mean sisters or anyone else. She seemed to give as well as she got. This was a partial misstep that somewhat undermined the drama. She should at least seem to be needing rescue. As the Prince, David Portillo was spot on vocally and dramatically. His performance was stirring. The two wicked sisters, Deborah Nansteel and Jacqueline Echols, both gave robust performances, Echols particularly so.

In the key role of the stepfather, Don Magnifico, Italian baritone Paolo Bordogna gave a very flavorful, nearly histrionic rendition of his part, which was generally hilarious, especially the scene in the wine cellar, which he played to the hilt. Playing things over the top is not a problem in a production this broad, but Bordogna let us know once too often that he knew he was playing it over the top – which is a problem. It distracts and detracts to let the audience know that you know you are funny. In any case, he was a guilty pleasure.

Italian bass-baritone Simone Alberghini got the balance just right in his portrayal of the valet Dandini, who trades places with the Prince in order to deceive the mean sisters. Both his singing and comic timing were excellent. He was very funny, but not self-consciously so. He knew how to keep the humor within his character. He played very well with the Prince. A welcome note of gravitas, both in terms of singing and dramatic stage presence, was provided by bass-baritone Shenyang as Alidoro. He knows how to be still, and still command attention. He perfectly portrayed the overseeing providential presence that restores the place of goodness and steers all things to their desired consummation.

The ensemble singing was a particular pleasure throughout the evening. I cannot think of a vocal quartet, quintet, sextet or septet that was not delightfully done. The sextet with the Prince, Dandini, Don Magnifico, Cinderella and the two sisters early in the second act after the Prince’s carriage accident was a particular delight – like listening to a vocal version of popcorn.

The septet at the Prince’s banquet table was also well done, but the singers should not have had to compete with the downstage mice, who, in front of the banquet table, engaged in various gymnastics. By the way, these half-dozen rodent characters were close to omnipresent throughout the opera. They were charming and made sense in the baron’s rundown château, where it was logical that mice should be, but what were they doing in the Prince’s palace other than helping to move the props? For director Joan Font to have allowed for such a major distraction in the banquet scene tells us that he did not trust the material Rossini had given him for it. Regarding the mice, if the prince really loves Cinderella, the first thing he should do is call an exterminator.

Font, however, did a generally fine job of keeping things moving and lively. One minor error was his staging of Cinderella’s entrance at the ball, which should have been grander – probably through the large upstage doors. Instead, we see her sidestepping along an upper catwalk to get to the stage-right staircase, which she then descends. It was a bit anticlimactic. Also, I think the closing touch of presenting the opera as if it had been in a dream with poor Cinderella still sweeping the floor was gratuitous and an unnecessary downer. After all, the opera’s subtitle is Goodness Triumphant (a fact that goes unmentioned in any of the WNO program notes), not Cinderella’s escapist daydream and her return to serfdom. My reaction to the director’s note as to why he did this is: it is a mistake to over-interpret a soufflé.

Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci and the Washington National Opera Orchestra were on point throughout the performance, delivering very deft orchestral support. They played the overture with nuance and sparkle.

I noticed that there was a large group of young people (I would guess in the later stages of grade school) up in the third balcony. I cannot think of a better introduction for them to opera – except, of course, The Barber of Seville. I know that my 15-year-old son enjoyed it as much as I did.

This production runs through May 21, with next Saturday's performance (May 16, 7 pm) shown in simulcast at Nationals Park.

1 comment:

Brad M. said...

I saw this with my kids, who enjoyed it immensely. Not my favorite Rossini (or probably his, for that matter) but as an avid opera goer, your review was dead-on. The mice definitely stole the show. And Ms Leonard, as a very fetching Cinderella, has some vocal limitations that will keep her in the 2nd or 3rd tier of sopranos. But a very cute evening, all in all.