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01 Nov 2015

A Bright and Accomplished Cenerentola at Lyric Opera of Chicago

Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola has returned to Lyric Opera of Chicago in a production new to this venue and one notable for several significant debuts along with roles taken by accomplished, familiar performers.

The stylized costumes and stage props exemplify both character and action in this production which has been seen at the Houston Grand Opera, Welsh National Opera, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, and the Grand Théâtre de Genève. As Cenerentola, or Cinderella, and her stepfather Don Magnifico Isabel Leonard and Alessandro Corbelli perform roles with which they are frequently associated. New to the Chicago Lyric stage are Lawrence Brownlee as the Prince, Don Ramiro, and Vito Priante as his valet Dandini. Christian Van Horn takes the role of the beneficent Alidoro, and the step-sisters Clorinda and Tisbe are sung by Diana Newman and Annie Rosen, the latter two in their debut season here. Sir Andrew Davis conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra and Michael Black has prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus.

After an exciting performance of the overture growing appropriately in rapid intensity, the first scene depicts the three daughters of Don Magnifico’s household. Clorinda and Tisbe are positioned at first atop the stairs while Cenerentola remains on the ground level immersed in domestic duties. During her plaintive song of a king in search of emotional companionship, “Una volta” [“Once upon a time”], Ms. Leonard folds brightly colored garments in keeping with the typically exaggerated hues worn by the stepsisters. Cenerentola’s own drab garb matches the atmosphere of the hearth where she seems to spend much of her existence together with the silent yet very mobile and sympathetic rats, played adroitly by skilled actors in this production. Indeed the rats attract considerable attention during assorted moments of this staging, their movements often being syncopated to the orchestral or vocal melody. In this first scene Leonard’s concluding decoration of “L’innocenza e la bontà” [“Innocence and goodness”] delineates the positive associations of her character, just as the railing of the contentious stepsisters is delivered in brief, lyrical leaps. A sudden interruption to the domestic scene occurs when Alidoro, court philosopher of Prince Ramiro and here disguised as a beggar, raps at the door and desires food. In keeping with the heroine’s resulting “bontà,” Mr. Van Horn’s confident prediction of Cenerentola’s fate is sealed with a rich bass pitch in “Pria di notte vi darà” [“Will reward you before night falls”]. The courtiers of the Prince burst unexpectedly into Don Magnifico’s palace with the announcement of the royal intention to take a wife. From their first moments on stage the men of the Lyric Opera Chorus, each sporting a bluish-purple elevated coif, deliver their spirited news with commanding vocal discipline. During the ensemble with reactions from the collected sisters, Leonard’s character could be more assertively portrayed, since her vocal part is here dominated by other emphases taken forte. At the awakening of Don Magnifico from his dream of a donkey who grows feathers and flies to rest on a steeple Mr. Corbelli combines in lush decoration and expert comic posture the irritation of being awakened with the colorful description of his dream. In addressing “Miei rampolli femminini” [“my female offspring”] with, at first, declamatory emphasis, Magnifico chides his daughters for interrupting this utopian vision of the family’s prosperity. The prediction of each becoming “a fertile queen” is enhanced by Corbelli’s repeated embellishments on “fertilissima regina.” Ultimately, the reputation of the family will reflect on its progenitor, a hope expressed by Corbelli’s never-ending final pitch in “la gloria mia sarà” [“and the glory will be mine”].

In the subsequent scene introducing Don Ramiro - in the guise of his valet - together with Cenerentola as a pair, Mr. Brownlee and Ms. Leonard present a bel canto feast for the audience. Brownlee’s voice is secure and richly focused from his entrance at Ramiro’s “Tutto è deserto” [“all is deserted”]. High pitches are here a natural extension of Brownlee’s vocal line rather than a layered effect. At the same time, embellishments on “Legge” [“decree”] and “mi condanna” [“condemns me”] suggest the heightened emotional state of the male protagonist as he searches for a suitable mate. Leonard’s response in their duet beginning “Un soave non so che” [“A sweet something”] is equally effective in presenting an expressive filigree. Both singers use touching ornamentation in their duet, “Una grazia, un certo incanto” [“a grace, a certain enchantment”], such that the listener is assured that love has indeed been kindled. As the step-sisters summon Cenerentola, the newly declared pair bids farewell, yet Leonard’s dramatic delivery on “Questo cor più mio non è” [“This heart is mine no longer”] seals the emotional bond. A brief comic exchange between the supposed valet and the father leads to Ramiro’s words, “Ecco Dandini” [“Here comes Dandini”]. The latter character’s entrance, perched on a mock horse and costumed in the Prince’s court attire, sets the tone for his charade of roaming “fra le belle” [“among the fair maids”] in order to assure the royal succession. Mr. Priante’s comic poses and ease in the rapid patter of his vocal line make him an ideal Dandini: the fine line of overacting is touched but never exceeded in this self-satisfied assumption of the Prince in disguise.

Despite Cenerentola’s pleading to attend the Prince’s ball for “un’ ora sola” [“just one hour”] or even less, Magnifico and the step-sisters depart to seek their own future. After Leonard’s sincere appeal, expressed with effective runs in the vocal line, she is left here to find solace with her true companions, the rats. The creatures align themselves in a row in keeping with Alidoro’s return and his promise, “Si, tutto cangerò” [“Yes, everything will change”]. In his aria, “Là del ciel” [“There in heaven”], M. Van Horn’s resonant pitches on “fanciulla innocente” calm the fears of Cenerentola and bring order to her heart, just as the companions have lined in a row expectantly. Van Horn’s encouraging “No, non temer” [“No, do not fear”] is followed by repeated and varied decoration on the line “La tua pena cangiando già va” [“Your suffering will be eased”]. In the rapid second part of his aria, signaling Cenerentola’s final preparations to attend the royal evening, Van Horn’s voice swells with occasional forte notes, just as he calls attention to the “increasing sound” of his approaching carriage [“Un crescente mormorio”]. As he announces that the storm of suffering is past, Van Horn embellishes with declarative pitches “il destino” and “l’innocenza brillerà” [“fate,” “innocence will triumph”] as watchwords for the journey.

In the scenes before Cenerentola’s arrival at the palace Priante’s Dandini is especially adept at unmasking the shallowness of Magnifico and the self-interest of Clorinda and Tisbe. At the arrival of the “dama incognita,” announced by the omniscient Alidoro, the curiosity of all parties turns to her identity. In reaction to these attentions, Leonard’s solo “Sprezzo quei don” [“I scorn those gifts”] with a rising line spurs hope in Ramiro’s heart. Once dinner is announced, staged here as a colorful multi-level scene, Dandini declares that he will eat with the appetite of four. The watchful rats gather in front of the formal table as they are clearly satisfied with Cenerentola’s designated placement.

In Act II the identity of the woman remains at first unresolved, while Magnifico counsels his remaining daughters. Despite uncertainty over the unexpected resemblance of the “madama anonima” to Cenerentola, Magnifico muses on his own elevation if the Prince marries one of his daughters. In his aria, “Sia qualunque delle figlie” [“Whichever one of you my daughters”], Corbelli sings with buffo delight as he relishes the thought of supplicants petitioning his own potential generosity. When he dreams of sending a petition to the palace, he lingers with exaggerated decoration on “Da palazzo può passer.” The rats now act as mock intermediaries, while they hand petitions to the delusional father, just as Corbelli accelerates his vocal gusto.

The role of Dandini changes soon in the following scenes. He follows Cenerentola in his attempts to woo her for himself, a development already suspected by the Prince. Obeying the dictum of his philosopher, “Quel che consiglia il core” [“Whatever your heart counsels you”], Ramiro declares Dandini unmasked and resolves to find the unidentified maiden. In “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro” Brownlee performs the signature tenor aria with a polished technique and individual touches of color by which he puts his own stamp on the character. “giuro” is sung with decorated legato, just as rising pitches on “amor” show the fervor of Ramiro’s emotions. In the second part of the aria with chorus Brownlee’s athletic embellishments are exciting and well-placed, his final pitch on “m’hai da guidar” [“you must guide me”] extending past the orchestral finish.

Once the search has brought Ramiro, via a stalled carriage, close to the palace of Magnifico, identities are revealed and a happy ending is inevitable for the protagonists. Yet Cenerentola’s appeal for the forgiveness of her family enhances her own nobility of heart. Leonard’s heroine declares “sarà mia vendetta il lor perdono” [“my revenge will be their forgiveness”] with a simplicity of line suggesting her sincerity. In the final “Nacqui all’ affanno” [“I was born to sorrow”] she uses an opposing effect, applying multiple decorations on “core,” “la sorte mia,” and “rapido” to describe the swift change in her fortune. Leonard performs “Non più mesta” [“No longer sad”] with breathless runs and forte spirit, while she is here left to muse, accompanied only by her companions of the hearth, on “il mio lungo palpitar” [“my long years of heartache”]. Goodness has won out, at least in spirit.

Salvatore Calomino

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