Baltimore Opera:  La Cenerentola

Music by Gioacchino Rossini (1816)
Baltimore, MD Lyric Opera House
Sunday, December 12, 1999 (Matinee)

Conductor: Will Crutchfield
Director: John Lehmayer

by Jan Rosen

My first "La Cenerentola" was the New York Metropolitan Opera production which had been shown on TV last year and featured Cecilia Bartoli in the title role. It was an exciting and fun performance, and Ms. Bartoli did such a fine job, I fell in love with it at once, remarking to myself how few really "fun" operas there are in the standard repertoire. Rossini wrote a few such comic operas, with fun in mind (and, more importantly, a quick way to put money in his pocket! - which I am sure he had no problem with - these operas becoming successes almost overnight). To me, part of the fun of listening to Rossini is the way a masterful singer can muster those patter notes all the while (sometimes simultaneously) keeping a smile on his/her face, looking relaxed, darting about, dancing, emoting, and having fun.

La Cenerentola certainly is a fun opera, and brings to life a familiar fairy tale - that of Cinderella. There are many versions (operatic and non-operatic) of the Cinderella story, each with its own special flavor based on local lore and the storyteller's tastes. The version for which Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini completed the music in 1816 is set in some magical not-too-far-away land in the not-too-distant (relatively speaking) 18th Century. In Rossini's version (or is it really librettist Jacopo Ferretti's version?), Cinderella (Cenerentola) is given the appropriate name of Angelina (sung by Vivica Genaux). Her two wicked stepsisters are named Clorinda and Tisbe (sung by Carla DelVillaggio and Nicole Biondo, respectively). There is no wicked stepmother as some versions of the story have it, but rather a pompous old fool of a step father, named Don Magnifico (sung by Kevin Glavin). There is no fairy godmother here, either. Another variation in this retelling is that in Act I, the prince, Don Ramiro (sung by Bruce Fowler), sends his valet, Alidoro (sung by Eduardo Chama), disguised as a beggar, to test the honesty and charity of the household. When time to go to the prince's ball, Alidoro casts off his disguise, reveals who he is, and tells Angelina she WILL go to the ball. No, no pumpkin-turned-chariots, or mice turning into magnificent steeds, with the warning to be home by midnight!  No glass slipper here, either. In this version, it is a pair of identical bracelets that must be matched in order for the prince to know he has found his mysterious lady of the ball. Angelina gives the prince's valet one of this pair and tells him he will know he has found her when he finds the person who has the other of the pair.

Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux did an excellent job in the role of Angelina. She does not have the facial expressiveness of Cecilia Bartoli, but she has a wide and flexible vocal range, and displays an extraordinary acting talent in that role. Her voice is impressive and that is a difficult role to sing. Rossini's music is full of patter and coloratura which he took to extremes, and which are very difficult to sing. Ms. Genaux handled that well, never missing a beat or swallowing a syllable. For example, note how Ms. Genaux handles Angelina's patter in Act I with "Cenerentola vien qua" and the coloratura of Angelina's closing aria at the end of Act II - "Non pił mesta".

Carla DelVillaggio and Nicole Biondo as the two sisters were good, but not as comical as the two who played the role in the Met performance I had seen. I had expected the two sisters to be knocking each other all over the stage and pushing and pulling things out of each other's hands. I was expecting some burlesque and slapstick as they compete with each other for their father's and the prince's attentions. They seemed a bit stiff at times as if they could not "let go" and be silly.  I wanted more. Vocally they were excellent, but I was looking for comedy in their acting. I also wonder if some of that performance had been cut. The Met performance seemed to have longer dialogues and burlesque between the two of them. In the Baltimore Opera performance, something was missing from their presences on stage. I am not sure what.

My favorite role was that of the old buffoon, Don Magnifico.  Kevin Glavin, too, is exceptionally gifted. As an actor he added the right touch of humor and burlesque to each scene. He knows how to be silly … , appearing on stage in Act I boasting of how he is so favored by the prince, prancing around with a wine bottle as the King of Bacchanals, or trying to convince the prince to pay attention to his daughters. His voice contains the right amount of range and timbre for the role. He too, must hit all the right notes in that rapid Rossinian style, and at the same time stagger about like a fool. He doesn't swallow a syllable either. In order to be funny and effective on stage, he must do something like this.  Try it:  In less than 3 seconds, without stopping to take a breath, sing "un re piccolo qua, un re bambolo lą, un re piccolo qua, un re bambolo lą, e la gloria, e la gloria, e la gloria mia sarą!"  (It helps if you have a bottle of wine in your hand, dunce cap on your head, and you are standing on a chair pointing at yourself with your thumb!)  The Don Magnifico character doesn't necessarily have to stand on a chair with dunce cap on head, but any singer who does that role I believe needs to let go of his reservations and just enjoy acting silly and pompous, and have fun doing it.  Mr. Glavin did it all quite well, and to me he was the most effective of all the performers.

Baritone Daniel Mobbs sang the role of Dandini, the valet to Prince Don Ramiro. During much of this opera, Dandini and Don Ramiro have switched roles. Dandini pretends to be the prince, and Don Ramiro pretends to be the valet. When Dandini and Don Ramiro visit Don Magnifico's home in Act I, Angelina falls in love with Don Ramiro, not knowing he is really the prince. This "simple love" is what causes Don Ramiro to realize she is the truly perfect woman and thus fall in love with her. I am not sure with whom I was impressed, or if I should have been impressed. I was not really focused on them, as my attention was focused on Vivica Geneaux's superbly acted and sung Angelina and Kevin Glavin's comical Don Magnifico, who really stole the show. Both Mobbs and Fowler are good singers, but they faded into the woodwork at times. They seemed to approach their roles with a bit of timidity and did not project their voices or carry an aura of royalty.

Rossini's librettist gives this tale a moral by having Angelina forgive her family during the wedding banquet at the end of the opera. All live happily ever after. Just my personal feelings, aside from it being based on a fairy tale and that it's supposed to be that way, I found the end of this opera a bit sanguine and droopy. It reminded me of the end of Mozart's Don Giovanni, when the characters sing of the Don's soul going to hell and begin moralizing in a smug sort of way. I think that smugness is what bothers me about the end of this opera. The stage presentation is quite realistic, and the characters are played by real people dressed in 18th Century costumes (instead of the Medieval costumes worn by the two-dimensional cartoon figures in many children's storybooks). I couldn't help seeing it not as a re-enactment of a fairytale, but as a music drama. It's easy to forget it's a fairytale when it is done as realistically as it was done here. I don't often get to see an opera with a happy ending, so this was a relief from my usual operatic diet. However, an opera can have a happy ending without being droopy and moralizing - note Massenet's Le Cid, and Wagner's Die Meistersinger, as examples.

One thing I noticed at this performance was there were more children than I usually see at the opera. This was a Sunday matinee and of course I would expect families to be attending together with their small children. However, I usually don't see children at all at operas, regardless of the time of day or day of week. That Sunday afternoon at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House, there seemed to be hundreds of children of all ages in attendance, wide-eyed, filled with wonder and excitement, some carrying storybooks with the Cinderella story. I looked around wondering how they would respond to the telling they were about to see revealed on the stage. Well… I didn't have to look long and hard, as when the final curtain went down, the audience of all ages roared. No matter how it's told, Cinderella remains a children's classic one never gets tired of.

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