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Joyce DiDonato as Angelina [Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]
19 May 2014

The Met’s ‘La Cenerentola’ a winning ensemble of music and comedy

The company bids a smiling farewell to its 2013-14 HD simulcast season with Rossini’s comic masterpiece

The Met’s ‘La Cenerentola’ a winning ensemble of music and comedy

A review by David Abrams

Above: Joyce DiDonato as Angelina [Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera]

 

In opera, as in sports, winning efforts are generated not so much by superstars as by good old fashioned teamwork. Such is the case with Rossini’s bel canto lyric masterpiece, La Cenerentola — an ensemble opera whose success depends more on the precise timing and execution of its rapid patter numbers than its flashy solo arias.

Credit superstars Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Floréz for filling the hall at Lincoln Center Saturday, not to mention thousands of theaters across the globe picking up the live feed from New York in this, the final HD simulcast of the season. But it was ultimately the chemistry among the seven principal singers that made the difference in this reprise of the company’s 1997 production. From start to finish, this Cenerentola was pure fun and entertainment.

The story, as adapted by librettist Jacopo Ferretti from the Charles Perrault tale, parallels the Cinderella legend but with several twists. Gone are the supernatural elements, the iconic glass slipper (it’s a bracelet here) and pumpkin-turned carriage. The fairy godmother is now philosopher Alidoro (Luca Pisaroni), advisor to the handsome Prince Charming (Don Ramiro, played by Juan Diego Floréz). The mean old stepmother is now the just-as-ornery stepfather, Don Magnifico (Alessandro Corbelli). Add to this confection the light and fluffy melodic invention of Rossini and you have an amiable listening experience likely to keep you smiling for some three and a half hours.

Like Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, which the Met had simulcast just a few weeks ago, Rossini’s La Cenerentola stands out for its engaging vocal ensembles. Rossini plants a garden in which duets quickly sprout into trios — and before long, quartets, quintets and sextets. And for all its for coloratura-saturated solo arias both for mezzo-soprano and tenor, Cenerentola shines most brightly on these ensemble numbers.

DiDonato and company forged a delightful mix of characters whose timing and execution were remarkably precise. Among the highlights in this production were the brilliant first-act quintet Nel volto estatico, the exciting ensemble finale to Act 1 and the metronomic second act sextet,Questo è un nodo avviluppato. My personal favorite is the tongue-twisting Act 1 patter duet between Dandini and Ramiro, Zitto, zitto; piano, piano (which soon blossoms into an equally delightful quartet once the two sisters take stage). This effervescent number bubbles over with joy, and the speed and precision in both pitch and diction between Floréz and Spagnoli was, for me, the highlight of the production.

Cesare Lieve’s production team scored some hits — and misses. Among the things that went well were the never-ending comedic visuals, which somehow never grew stale. I especially enjoyed the ensemble finale to Act 1, as all seven principal characters prepare to seat themselves at a long dinner set carrying only six places and chairs — culminating in a continuous game of musical chairs. I also appreciated the staging of the slow, staccato-like sextetQuesto è un nodo avviluppato in Act 2 — where the prince uses a ribbon to tether the other five characters together in a “a tangled web” (“nodo avviluppato”), in-sync with the pulse of the music.

Perhaps the cleverest touch is when the two sisters, standing at opposite sides of the stage, serve a volley of angry commands at Cinderella — demanding that she retrieve their clothes and jewelry, while the chorus turns its head side-to-side like spectators at a tennis match.

Still, Lieve’s curious and annoying touches of surrealism in this production seemed rather out of place for a lighthearted comedy such as this. The expressionless faces pasted on the all-male chorus, each man standing stiffly at attention in a formal tie, dark suit and bowler hat — looked like clones of the creepy “Oddjob” character from the James Bond thriller, Goldfinger.

Juan Diego Floréz, who missed the beginning of the production run due to illness, was in top form Saturday. Hisleggiero tenor, light and crystal clear in even at the softest, most whisper-like moments, is perfectly suited to bel canto. Floréz’s flexible high register reaches the heavens with great ease of delivery, and his sustained his high C at the end of his virtuosic signature Act 2 aria Si, ritrovarla io guiro went on seemingly forever. (A clearly delighted audience would not permit the show to go on until Diego, breaking character, returned for a lengthy solo bow.)

Joyce DiDonato seemed to focus her efforts beyond the vocal acrobatics (which she had long ago mastered) and on to her character’s subdued sense of tenderness and joy. This was at once apparent when she first sets eyes on Prince Ramiro (dressed as a lowly servant) in the duet Un soave non so che. Here, DiDonato uses Rossini’s coloratura in this “love at first sight” moment not to flaunt her talents, but to evoke a sense of stunned bewilderment — a sexual awakening, perhaps, from her repressed life as the family outcast. DiDonato’s final aria of forgiveness (Non più mesta), sung standing in front of the magnificent wedding cake as she prepares to throw the bouquet over her shoulder, was as meaningful as it was handsome.

It’s difficult to avoid making comparisons in this role to another great artist, Elīna Garanča — who sang Angelina in the Met’s earlier HD simulcast of Cenerentola, in 2009. I love both mezzo sopranos pretty much equally, but there are noticeable differences between the voices. Garanča’s mezzo is darker and more pronounced than DiDonato, with rich alto colors. DiDonato, whose voice is brighter and leans more towards a lyric soprano than it does a mezzo, remains unsurpassed in the sheer flexibility of her coloraturas — which she delivers not with overt virtuosity but with a delicate sense of ease and comfort.

As the befuddled grouch, Don Magnifico, Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli is a fine comedic actor who by his second act aria Sia qualunque delle figlie had thoroughly endeared himself to the listener. To this I’ll add that Corbelli’s rapid sixteenth-note patter in his arias Miei Rampolli Femminini and Sia qualunque delle figlie was truly “magnifico.” Still, I wished there had been more depth and resonance to his voice that might have allowed him to capture the necessary degree of affected pomposity. After all, this role calls for a basso buffo — and if you don’t think it matters I urge you to listen to a true bass, such as Paolo Montarsolo. Corbelli’s voice is simply too lean to carve a credible Magnifico.

Sporting a well-trimmed moustache and carrying an air of aristocracy that evokes the image of John Barrymore in the epic 1932 film Grand Hotel, Pietro Spagnoli crafts a convincing character of Dandini, valet to Prince Ramiro. Dandini, asked by the prince to exchange identities temporarily, relishes his royal look in tails and magnificent blue sash and plays up the masquerade to the extreme. When he first enters the Magnifico mansion, Spagnoli ceremoniously drops his cloak, scarf and gloves — standing patiently until the real prince, now disguised as the valet, reluctantly peels them off the floor.

Spagnoli turned up the volume on these affected mannerisms in the comic aria Come un’ape, as Dandini — presumably combing the town in search of a suitable mate — likens himself to a bee looking to pollinate the perfect flower. Spagnoli handled the coloraturas in this cavatina with great flexibility, and navigated the quickly moving 16th-notes in the concluding cabaletta with consummate ease.

Luca Pisaroni as Alidoro doesn’t get as much time onstage as the others, and that’s a shame. Pisaroni’s handsome baritone, nicely colored in its pedal tones (as was evident in his signature aria Là del ciel nell’arcano), reminded me of Samuel Ramey in his prime.

Maurizio Balò’s box set, which is well suited to the comedic elements of this production, projects the bruised image of Don Magnifico’s once-proud mansion that, like the family fortune, has fallen into a serious state of disrepair. The main prop on the set is a three-legged couch that shifts forward whenever anybody sits on it — a continuous source of belly laughs throughout the show. Mostly, though, the set acts as a backdrop for the continuous sight-gags on the part of cantankerous sisters Clorinda (Rachelle Durkin) and Tisbe (Patricia Risley).

The dueling siblings drew laughs every 10 seconds or so, as they constantly battled one another competing for the attention of the rich and handsome prince. And make no mistake about it, competition was fierce. (At times I thought I was watching the final two contestants duke it out on the ABC Television reality series, The Bachelor.) Durkin and Risley also excelled in the rapid parlando numbers, such as in the quartet Zitto, zitto; piano, piano, where the pair’s sixteenth-note patter came off cleanly and accurately. I was especially impressed with Durkin, whose looks and comedic mannerisms bear strong resemblance to those of Carol Burnett. Durkin’s voice is quite lovely, as well — as could be heard in the second-act ensemble Donna sciocca! Alma di fango.

Conductor Fabio Luisi’s tempos were uniformly quick and sprightly, capturing the energy and sheer joy of Rossini’s whimsical writing. The daring tempos led to some flashy moments in the ubiquitous patter sections, particularly during the second act finale. The Met Opera Orchestra was up to task, keeping the music light and crisp, and showing the way for the singers in the sharply dotted eight-note figures that permeate the score. The wind section was especially delightful in its alert articulations and tonguing passages, which I suspect are designed to mimic the singers’ patter. The nicely executed second act orchestral storm scene (and all good Rossini operas have a storm scene) afforded the listener a welcome moment of serious drama along an otherwise sea of fluff.

During the Overture, as the cameras panned the pit, simulcast audiences could read the white tags pinned on each player that read “Met Orchestra Musicians, Local 802 AFM” — an obvious act of solidarity on the eve of what promises to be a very contentious contract bargaining session this summer with Peter Gelb’s management team.

Not to be outdone by the orchestra, the Met Opera Chorus in its first entrance managed the heavily dotted rhythms alertly and with razor-sharp precision in O figlie amabali, as the prince’s courtiers announce to the sisters that the prince will soon be calling upon them.

This performance, special in so many ways, was even more so because of DiDonato’s announcement that she is hanging up mop, apron and bracelet for good. And indeed, her final performance as Angelina proved a fitting farewell to a role she had done — and so remarkably well — for the past 17 years.

How fortunate, too, that a worldwide audience was there to witness the send off.

David Abrams
CNY Café Momus

This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the permission of the author.

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