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24 Nov 2018

Cinderella goes to the panto: WNO in Southampton

Once upon a time, Rossini’s La Cenerentola was the Cinderella among his operatic oeuvre.

Welsh National Opera’s La Cenerentola, at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Cast of WNO La Cenerentola

Photo credit: Jane Hobson

 

The single ‘comic’ opera alongside the nine serious works that he wrote for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples between 1815 and 1822, it was regarded by the French poet Théophile Gautier as “a bottomless treasure, as if someone, in a fit of extravagance, plunged their arms up to their elbows into a pile of precious stones and then randomly started to throw handfuls of rubies and diamonds up into the air”. However, others lamented Rossini’s subversion of sentimental comic convention. Stendhal, after attending performances in Milan and, two years late, in Rome, expressed his dissatisfaction: “performance after performance left me cold and unmoved, beautiful as it is, [the music] seems to me to be lacking in some essential quality of ideal beauty.”

Above all, Stendhal lamented what he felt was the absence of ‘true’, elevating emotion in the portrayal of the characters of humble origin. Jacopo Ferretti’s libretto places the well-known fairy tale in a bourgeois context. Out with the fairy godmother and in with a charitable philosopher-cum-tutor who wishes to see his princely charge marry a ‘good’, honest lass. Out with the cruel step-mother and in with a socially and financially grasping step-father, Don Magnifico. Out with the glass slipper and in with a glittery bangle, a simple gift from the disguised Prince Ramiro which confirms Cinders’ lack of snootiness and avarice. Stendhal complained that Rossini’s score illuminated nothing but “the petty hurts and pettier triumphs of snobbishness”.

Giorgio Caoduro Dandini Fabio Macchioni Don Manifico.jpg Giorgio Caoduro (Dandini), Fabio Macchioni (Don Magnifico). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

Director Joan Font’s production - first performed by Welsh National Opera in 2007 - tries to resurrect some of the transformative magic of Alice’s Wonderland … by making a trip to Poundland. Designer Joan Guillén’s sets and costumes are bold and brassy: all plastic and plasticine and primary hues. Font and his Barcelona-based company Comediants have often exploited Mediterranean carnivalesque, and one might wonder if Font’s conception was influenced by Gautier’s praise: “Looking again at the music one sees how, just like playing the castanets, a sparkling line of trills and arpeggios blossoms forth. The music sings and laughs!” For, Font conjures the eighteenth-century Enlightenment through the vitality of a Spanish palette and the hyperbole of cartoon caricature.

Heather Lowe Tisbe Aoife Miskelly Clorinda.jpg Heather Lowe (Tisbe), Aoife Miskelly (Clorinda). Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

The mundane, magical and plain mischievous co-exist. Cinders goes to the ball in a sedan chair which her rodent ‘courtiers’ and carpenters have assembled from a shabby chest of drawers; the Prince’s coach is magicked into being by some rotating mirrors … but later its miniature model is derailed by a roguish rat. Font puts the panto back into a period piece which had itself embodied the tension between ‘pure’ sentimentality and sensibility as hijacked by middle-class social climbers, but in so doing takes away much of the genuine enchantment of Rossini’s music as visual gags overpower vocal expression.

To some extent, though, this production was defeated by the size of Southampton’s Mayflower Theatre; when it opened in 1928 it was the largest theatre in the south of England, and still seats almost 2,300. Guillén’s designs seem to carry the cast to the far reaches of the vast stage; when atop the raised balcony at the rear, descending the framing stairs, or nestled within the grey-brick inglenook - especially when the mantle was raised to reveal the grand entrance to the Prince’s palace - the soloists sometimes struggled to project.

Likewise, in this barn of an auditorium conductor Tomáš Hanus struggled at times to keep the ensemble forces together. Proceedings got underway with a somewhat sluggish, desultory overture, with some questionable tuning from horns and wind, and rather listless Rossinian crescendos which were aching for an injection of ‘Formula-1’ acceleration. The patter of Don Magnifico’s first aria - sung briskly and ebulliently by Matteo Macchioni - in which he curses his daughters for waking him from his dream of being turned into a donkey - left the WNO Orchestra trailing in his wake. But, subsequently, Hanus put his foot on the pedal and left the Prince’s courtiers lagging behind. The ensembles were often metrically messy and occasionally in danger of skidding of the circuit. Perhaps it did not help that the laughs came from the visual trappings rather than from the dramatic interaction of the cast who were often left languishing in theatrical isolation in the ensemble numbers.

Matteo Macchioni Don Ramiro Tara Erraught Angelina.jpg Matteo Macchioni (Don Ramiro), Tara Erraught (Angelina) Photo credit: Jane Hobson.

That said, some superb singing offered much to admire. Don Magnifico might come across as a mean-spirited materialist but Fabio Capitanucci gave him a patina, at least, of lovability - and demonstrated a fine technique and good dramatic judgement. As Clorinde and Tisbe, Aoife Miskelly and Heather Low established their respective characters well at the start - much poncing, preening and ‘prettifying’ - and despite the parody which infects their song, and the brittleness of their boasting and bullying, they never sounded shrill.

As the human philosopher, Alidoro, Wojtek Gierlach - denied a magic wand but cloaked in a star-spangled cape - was a sonorous Prospero-cum-Sarastro, and if he didn’t quite attain a spiritual stature then he sang with beauty and authority.

Prince Ramiro was neatly sung by Matteo Macchioni; his tenor has brightness if not real bloom, and he presented a charming characterisation of a man who is more an emblem than an embodiment of royalty, and who doesn’t really find his ‘self’ until he’s wearing someone else’s suit.

Tara Erraught Angelina WNO Dancers.jpg Tara Erraught (Angelina), WNO Dancers. Photo credit: Jane Hbson.

Wearing the figurative crown though, appropriately, was Tara Erraught, who somehow imbued Cinderella’s lovely first aria, ‘Una volta c’era un re’, with sadness, longing, and hope, simultaneously. She was both of this world - down-to-earth and without illusion - and innocently unworldly. Vocally, her line was pure and controlled; the coloratura clean and clear; the pristine, polished evenness and sparkle of her tone heart-winning. No wonder the Prince was smitten. A pragmatist rather than a Prince hunter, this Cinders did not let good fortune tarnish her innocence or dull her natural glow of goodness.

Cinders’ helpmate-rodents - ever-present, ever-twitching - both stole the show and kept it on the road: observing and facilitating, overseeing and fixing. But, when the loudest applause is generated by the balletic unrolling of the red carpet by a pair of rats, something must surely be amiss. But if, like Stendhal, one missed a certain nobility of feeling, then at least, and luckily for the rats, there was no Cheshire Cat lurking in the inglenook.

Claire Seymour

Rossini: La Cenerentola (co-production between Welsh National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu and Grand Théâtre de Genève)

Angelina (Cinderella) - Tara Erraught, Clorinda - Aoife Miskelly, Tisbe - Heather Lowe, Don Ramiro - Matteo Macchioni, Don Magnifico - Fabio Capitanucci, Alidoro - Wojtek Gierlach, Dandini - Giorgio Caoduro, Rats/Dancers - Colm Seery, Darío Sanz Yagüe, Ashley Bain, Meri Bonet, Lucy Burns, María Comes Sampedro, Lauren Wilson; Director - Joan Font, Conductor - Tomáš Hanus, Revival Director/Choreographer - Xevi Dorca, Designer - Joan Guillén, Lighting Designer - Albert Faura (realised on tour by Paul Woodfield), Welsh National Opera Orchestra.

Mayflower Theatre, Southampton; Thursday 22nd November 2018.

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