10 Apr 2013

Cinderella Goes to the Opera

The Los Angeles opera company marketed its spring production of Rossini's La Cenerentola as Cinderella though there is no opera by that name. The libretto of La Cenerentola is not the Cinderella story we know.

However, given that fairy tales have murky origins, are common to many different languages and cultures (and this one is no exception) it’s easy to understand that the Company chose a title likely to be familiar to a public living just down the road from Disney Land.

What exactly did they present on stage? La Cenerentola is a comic opera based on a French fairy tale by Charles Perrault, titled Cendrillon, ou la petite pantoufle de verre — Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper (Cendre, cenere, and cinder are all ashy prefixes) Perrault’s story, written in the late 1600s, is essentially the Cinderella story we know. Grimm’s is grimmer.

A year after the première of The Barber of Seville, Rossini was commissioned to write an opera for the Teatro Valle in Rome. It turned out to be a commission with problems. Three days before the December 1816 deadline for a libretto, none had been turned in. In urgent conference with librettist Jacopo Ferretti, Rossini rejected story after story as impractical for various reasons, among them, the unsuitability of the cast which had already been hired. When he finally agreed to the Cinderella story, he insisted it not have a fairy godmother or pumpkins that turned into coaches. Rossini, apparently did not look kindly on supernatural phenomena. He wanted his opera to have a moral component. Ferretti gave him La Cenerentola, ossia La bonta in trionfoCinderella or the Triumph of Goodness.

Ferretti completed the libretto in twenty-two days. Rossini composed the music in twenty-four days. A month later, on 25 January 1817, the opera received its first (seriously underrehearsed) performance at the Teatro Valle. It was not an instant success.

To do away with the supernatural and to add a moral to the story, Rossini’s Cenerentola is a girl named Angelina, whose mother has died. She lives with her step father, Don Magnifico, and his two daughters, and has become their mistreated servant. When a beggar seeking food enters the house, the nasty step sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe try to throw him out, but Angelina feeds him. An announcement is made that Prince Ramiro will soon appear to seek a wife. The step sisters overwork Cenerentola to help them prepare for his arrival. The prince appears, but wanting to be loved for himself alone, he is disguised as his own valet. No sooner do he and Cenerentola exchange one look, but they fall in love. In a moment, Dandini, the Prince’s valet, outfitted as the Prince, comes on the scene and invites everyone to the ball, where, he says, the Prince will choose his wife. Cenerentola (of course) is not allowed to go. How will she get transportation without pumpkins and a gorgeous outfit without a fairy godmother? The beggar was the Prince’s wise tutor in disguise. He can arrange anything. Suffice it to say that after the usual jolly confusion, the Prince returns to Don Magnifico’s house and identifies the servant girl as his true love. And once Cenerentola has become a princess, she forgives her cruel family, and all is hugs and kisses.

Mezzo Ketevan Kemoklidze, who offered an attractive and well acted Cenerentola, at the April 6th performance I attended, handled both her lyric and coloratura passages well, but her voice did not carry into the house. For some reason, perhaps the depth from which the principles were often required to perform, there were times their voices seemed barely to rise over the orchestra. It was apparent, however, that tenor René Barbera, as Prince Ramiro, has a bright and secure top voice. Stacy Tappan and Ronnita Nicole Miller were properly outlandish as the nasty Clorinda and Tisbe. Baritone Alessandro Corbelli, a veteran buffo performer was an amusing Don Magnifico, though here again - perhaps another sound issue — there was a lack of crispness in his patter. Bass baritone Vito Priante, making his US debut, was a delightful dandy in both voice and body as Dandini. Bass Nicola Ulivieri, as the tutor Alidoro, was impressive in his Mozartian “Là del ciel nell´arcano profondo”.

Los Angeles used a delightful production created in 2008 by Spanish director Joan Font in a joint venture with Barcelona’s Liceu, Houston Grand Opera, the Welsh National Opera and Grand Théâtre de Géneve. Señor Font employed brilliant colored costumes and added dancers dressed as the nicest, kindest, most amusing rats you’ll ever see, to add movement and interest to the static plot. No review of this performance can be complete without acknowledging the intensity and attention to detail that the dancers brought to their roles. Nor can it be complete without mention of Maestro James Conlon’s sensitivity to the score, reflecting his program notes and pre-performance lecture, in both of which, he recounted his love for Rossini’s music.

Sadly, in the end, Señor Font did not give us a happy story about virtue rewarded. He sabotaged Rossini’s message at the very last moment by sadistically quick-switching Cenerentola and the audience from the bright lights, joy and forgiveness reigning at her wedding, back to her lonely, dark, ashy hearth. It was mean spirited and trite. We all know life is but a dream.

Estelle Gilson

Cast and production information:

Clorinda: Stacy Tappan; Tisbe:Ronnita Nicole Miller; Angelina (Cenerentola):Ketevan Kemoklidze; Alidoro:Nicola Ulivieri; Don Magnifico:Alessandro Corbelli; Don Ramiro: René Barbera; Dandini:Vito Priante. Orchestra and chorus of the Los Angeles Opera. Conductor: James Conlon. Director: Joan Font. Scenery and Costume Design: Joan Guillén. Lighting Designer: Albert Faura. Chorus Director: Grant Gershon. Choreographer: Xevi Dorca.