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La Cenerentola by Josep Guinovart
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Cinderella and her Cinderfella

Once upon a time, we used to only dream about a stellar pairing like Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu has fielded for their current offering on display: “La Cenerentola.”

Gioachino Rossini: La Cenerentola

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona

Above illustration by Josep Guinovart


I mean, a diva and a divo that could both easily, nay joyfully negotiate the considerable and varied vocal demands of the title role and the Prince? And handle spot-on comic acting as effortlessly as they embodied well-judged sentimental moments that truly touched the heart? And on top of it all, both be possessed of exceptional, unassuming youthful good looks and that truly elusive “star quality”?

Well, ’tis the season, and dreams do come true. Those who whine and pine for some elusive “Golden Age” or another should shut up and hurry to Catalonia to catch Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez in what may just be definitive performances in Rossini’s enchanting rags-to-riches-rendition.

The beautiful, blond, Ms. DiDonato quite simply has it all. She can dispatch roulades with aplomb; color and vary seamless melismas to convey any variety of emotions; float high, middle, or low notes (and everything in between); spout out fiery dramatic phrases; or pull back to pianissimi of crushing frailty. It seems nothing in the role eludes her. She is a major artist with a beautifully schooled, richly handsome instrument, at the top of her game. Above all, she invites us into her world with a winning presence and an infectious delight, sharing her prodigious gifts in the service of one of Rossini’s most enchanting characters.

That she brought us to our knees and then to our feet with a perfectly judged “Non piu mesta” almost goes without saying. It was one of those thrilling performances when my heart began racing as fast as the coloratura, and the entire audience scarcely dared breathe. Applause and a low roar began as soon as she released the climactic note, and it built and built until the play-off finished and we seemed helpless in wanting to out-do each other in shouting our approval.

This is the kind of moment we dream of encountering in our years of routine, nicely competent opera-going, isn’t it? A spontaneous communal moment mercifully unspoiled by the likes of the Met Shush-ers (aka “The Applause Police”), where sudden perfection and the outpouring of recognition collide to make for an electric, one-of-a-kind shared experience. But far before this famous set piece, our star impressed from her very first, firmly-voiced “Una volta cera un’ re,” and then she just went from strength to strength. I felt much like Renee Zellweger in “Jerry Maguire” when she said “You had me from ‘hello’.”

Matching her note for note, and dripping charisma (he could bottle and sell it), Mr. Florez currently has no equal in this repertoire. Having heard him now on seven occasions, this cool bel canto dude just never mis-fires. Everything in his beautiful, bright lyric voice is perfectly aligned and evenly produced; he wisely judges just how far to push it in volume; his remarkable agility knows no apparent bounds; he can spin a hushed or full-throated legato phrase that the great Kraus would envy; and he can leap octaves and tenths (maybe fourteenths) in a single bound to perfectly centered high notes.

His Latin temperament and impossibly boyish dark good looks are certainly icing on the cake to ladies of both sexes (the five Milanese gentlemen with whom I shared my box were certainly enamored, prompting much passing of binoculars). Perhaps his most special skill as a complete performer is that he knows how to effortlessly play comedy — without mugging, without shtick, without gilding the lily — he just “gets it.” So here is a Prince Charming that is fun, passionate, a looker, and…he sings, too. No wonder he gets the girl!

In my previous encounters with “Cenerentola” I have certainly always enjoyed the tenors I heard, nice voices, nice enough acting. But I never quite realized what a great part Don Ramiro could be until I first caught Mr. Florez in it in London (well-partnered with Kasarova). It is cause for rejoicing that he is just a plain ol’ star singer who can make any of his assumptions a star part.

Not to say that these two were alone in their glory, for the Liceu assembled a most winning cast. At first I thought that Bruno de Simone (Don Magnifico) and David Menendez (Dandini) might should switch roles. The former was more suave of voice and presentation than I had imagined for Magnifico, and the latter a little more blustery and over-the-top than any of my previous Dandini’s. But once I set aside my pre-conceptions, both won me over with their well-realized (and well-traveled) interpretations. Although the frequent rapid-fire patter from both was well-executed, what impressed even more was the underlying beauty of tone both brought to the occasion, de Simone more lyrical, Menendez more burnished.

Simon Orfila’s warm, mature, and artfully deployed bass-baritone contributed another big plus with a lovingly conceived Alidoro. In the rather one-note dramatic roles of the step sisters, Cristina Obregon (Clorinda) and especially Itxaro Mentxaka (Tisbe) always acquitted themselves well, sparkling vocally in their spunky chatter-patter, and adding substantially to the many ensembles.

Joan Font directed a highly inventive production that has also been shared between Houston Grand Opera, Welsh National Opera -Cardiff, and Geneva’s Grand Theatre. Mr. Font and his designer Joan Guillen have come up with a cornucopia of clever touches, a riot of well-coordinated colors, and a unifying concept that deploys a “chorus” of eight dancers costumed as rats (with long pointy noses) who prettily pose, comment with movement, change scenery, and offer props along with tea and sympathy.

Amid all the bustle, and funning around, and subsequent glamor, these judiciously used rodent groupings kept us well grounded in Cinderella’s humble milieu. Indeed, she began “Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto” kneeling among the rats and charmingly tousling their heads as a sort of ‘thanks’ for having been such willing accomplices.

While all the tongue-in-cheek costumes and wigs were revelatory and aptly matched to the characters, I found our heroine’s white ball gown to be a bit of a disappointment. In this signature moment of her arrival at the ball, the skirt looked too short, like a high water model, and the veil that was removed revealed a huge white powdered wig that, from my seat at least, looked for all the world like a white Afro so big it could eclipse Angela Davis. Mr. Florez’ white wig, while accurate, might also have been traded in for a brunette model to better complement his coloring.

I initially wondered why Cinderella came out for the final scene in her black, gray and white(designer) rags and a tiara, but it became clear that Mr. Font had one more trick up his sleeve. During her final aria, she distanced herself more and more from the Prince, ending alone in a spotlight, and was once again rat-handed her broom. Was it all a dream? A unique touch to end a uniquely delightful production.

Albert Faura’s excellent lighting merits mention since it was such a willing accomplice in the afternoon’s effects. The back lighting of the basic scenic structure instantly transformed it from rat-infested home to palace (in this case, also rat-infested). The interior lighting of the fireplace created a wonderful effect as the mantle lifted and it grew to create/reveal the imposing palace doors. And in a novel touch, the storm scene was accompanied by the rats operating a shadow curtain showing a silhouette of the prince in his mini-coach riding through the blustery night en route to find the girl of his dreams.

Last but not least, Patrick Summers conducted with stylistic flair, and ably accompanied the recitatives from the keyboard. Inexplicably, he got a few undeserved hoots at curtain call. All I can figure is he was apparently being taken to task for a total of about six bars in Act I when our otherwise fine Dandini slightly misjudged an entrance, and later had a very minor moment of rhythmic uncertainty. When things are moving at such a breakneck clip, the slightest moment of inattention can cause a hiccup. But I found the maestro always to be large-and-in-charge, and he led an effervescent reading that was not only well-paced, but all the while pleasingly sensitive to the balancing introspective utterances.

Seen on 23 December, this struck me as a perfect gift for the holiday season, which I recommend to companies and opera lovers everywhere as a fine alternative to the usual parade of “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Magic Flute,” and “The Nutcracker.”

At least on this occasion, in light of this dreamy Rossini, it seemed a new “Golden Age” might be possible after all. And after all, it is the season of dreams, isn’t it?

James Sohre

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