15 Mar 2013

Cenerentola at Paris Opéra

Rossini's “other” comic masterpiece of 1817 came into the world only a few weeks after the much better known The Barber of Seville. But it has had a place in the repertoire since its premiere.

A version of the enduringly popular Cinderella tale, it famously sheds much of the magic. There is no pumpkin or glass slipper. A fairy godfather takes the place of a fairy godmother. A buffoonishly wicked stepfather fills in for a simply evil wicked stepmother. Still, the opera soared in popularity all over the world (it was the first opera presented in Australia, for example). Nevertheless, it was a relative latecomer to the Paris Opéra, only arriving here only in 1977. The current production, by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, is even older, dating back to its 1968 premiere at Munich's Bavarian State Opera. Paris audiences only saw this version for the first time when it entered the repertoire last season.

Lately, Cenerentola has enjoyed a renaissance in operatic capitals, with the principal roles going in recent years to such stars as Cecilia Bartoli, Juan Diego Florez, Lawrence Brownlee, and Joyce DiDonato (who will sing the title part at New York's Metropolitan Opera next season). The Opéra's effort is more subdued, though the great basso buffo Simone Alaimo, now a bit worn of voice, shares the role of Don Magnifico. His nephew, baritone Nicola Alaimo, is the alternate cast's Dandini, leading us to wonder what synergies these operatic relatives might make if paired on stage and why they were not. The question lingered in my mind, but the older Alaimo was a tour de force, impossible not to watch in his boorish physical comedy. It is the title role that really sparkles, however, and in the promising young mezzo Serena Malfi the Opéra made a most fortunate casting decision. Lithe lyricism and a purring lower register, together with crystal clear coloratura runs, evoked a young Bartoli. Already scheduled for a Metropolitan Opera debut, the public has much to look forward to in this exciting new artist, who only made her stage debut in 2009 and has room to grow. Tenor Antonio Siragusa has nothing to answer for in a Cenerentola universe dominated by Florez and Brownlee. A fine lyric tenor, he scaled the role's difficult ascents with admirable confidence and enjoyable flair. "Si, ritrovarla io giuro" was easily the evening's highlight among the male singing. Riccardo Novaro's Dandini accomplished this difficult role with zeal — a servant, Dandini must impersonate his master and then switch back again. François Lis's less well articulated legato eviscerated the charm of the fairy godfather Alidoro. Jeannette Fischer and Cornelia Oncioiu played up the comic notes in the stepsister roles of Clorinda and Tisbe. Riccardo Frizza led a delicate and well balanced performance that took appreciable advantage of the Palais Garnier's intimacy. The time may have come for heavier works to be staged there again.

Ponnelle's production, for which he also designed the sets and costumes, looks like a giant dollhouse, with individual rooms in Don Magnifico's run down manor and Don Ramiro's palace emerging from behind sliding screens. It is a bit quaint, but tells the story most effectively and avoids the current preoccupation with overdirecting classic opera.

Paul du Quenoy

Click here for cast and production information.