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07 Sep 2019

British Youth Opera: Rossini's La Cenerentola

Stendhal (as recorded in his Life of Rossini) was not a fan of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, complaining that after the first few bars of the Introduzione he was already suffering from a ‘faint feeling of nausea’, a condition which ‘never entirely dissipated, [recurring] periodically throughout the opera, and with increasing violence’.

British Youth Opera: Rossini’s La Cenerentola

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Adam Maxey (Don Magnifico) and Siân Griffiths (Angelina)

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

Stendhal blamed the banality of the music - ‘a servants’ hall vulgarity’ - which failed to inspire his imagination, because it left too little to the imagination.

The same certainly could not be said of director Stuart Barker’s production of Rossini’s prince-and-pauper fairy-tale romance for British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre, which found a perfect balance between fantasy and realism. Bek Palmer’s designs merged the Dickensian with the Expressionistic, with an occasional dash of Walt Disney thrown in. The acute rakes, plunging angles and oppressive shadows of the Act 1 set established the grey, bleak world in which Angelina toils and suffers: after all, the very name Cenerentola suggests a life lived amid ashes - and on this occasion the bullying Don Magnifico and his dastardly daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe, practically shoved this ragged Angelina into the fire-place with a broomstick. The only touch of colour was the purple velvet of ‘Dandini’s’ jacket and ‘Prince Ramiro’s’ splendid green spencer jacket - the gilt trimming and brocade hinting at Cinders’ future good fortune, perhaps.

Liam Bonthrone, Natalie Davies, Adam Maxey and Holly Brown Knight.jpg Jerome Knox (Dandini), Natalie Davies (Tisbe), Adam Maxey (Don Magnifico) and Holly Brown (Clorinda). Photo credit: Bill Knight.

Transformation came via a starry indigo front-drop, as Angelina was whisked in a crescent-moon stagecoach - the man-in-the-lunar-carriage smiling beneficently - to the Klimt-like arbours, vaults and turrets of the Prince’s palace, for Act 2. There may be no glass slipper in librettist Jacopo Ferretti’s version of the fairy-tale, but Angelina’s essential goodness and preciousness seemed reflected in her surroundings - a shimmering dazzle of gold and light.

Rossini makes considerable demands upon his cast and the young singers uniformly met them with panache. Mezzo-soprano Siân Griffiths has made a strong impression as part of the ensemble in several recent BYO productions - Riders to the Sea and Sāvitri Riders to the Sea and Sāvitri (2015), English Eccentrics (2016) and Judith Weir’s The Vanishing Bridegroom (2017) - and it was satisfying to see her take her moment in the title role in her stride, expressively establishing Angelina’s sadness and gentility in ‘Una volta c’era un re’ and stylishly negotiating the glittering coloratura and gleaming peaks of ‘Nacqui all’affanno’. Griffiths’ mezzo has a lovely darkness at the bottom, capturing the depth of Cinders’ melancholy, and it brightens as it rises, accurately and agilely nailing every individual note in Rossini’s fearsome fioritura.

Sian Griffiths Knight.jpg Siân Griffiths (Angelina). Photo credit: Bill Knight.

Ferretti avoided the erotic symbolism of the glass shoe, replacing it with a bracelet, so we are spared the gruesome sight - à la Brothers Grimm - of the sisters hacking at their toes in order to stuff them into the silken slipper. But, this ghastly pair were a grisly duo indeed: Holly Brown (Clorinda) and Natalie Davies (Tisbe) groaned and grimaced with a sourness that would curdle the blood, all the while singing with winning gloss and glitter, and interacting with terrific comic accord - it was hard to believe that they weren’t in fact sisters.

Don Magnifico credit Bill Knight.jpgAdam Maxey (Don Magnifico). Photo credit: Bill Knight.

I admired Adam Maxey’s Figaro at the RCM last autumn and he used his strong baritone to balance the brutality and buffoonery which characterise Don Magnifico: threatening Angelina with violence and cruelly pronouncing her to be dead with the Prince comes calling, and ebulliently juggling the Prince’s vintage vinos in celebration of his promotion to ‘Master of the Wines’. The surreal cavatina in which Don Magnifico dreams he is an donkey, but a dignified one - “un bellissimo somaro … ma solenne” - was exuberantly comic. Maxey’s height - and his coiffure and superciliary extravagance (a touch of Disney’s Lady Tremaine, perhaps?) - helped him command the stage, and made Don Magnifico’s fall from disdain to discomfort all the more satisfying.

Liam Bonthrone was a Prince Ramiro of integrity. Bonthrone and Griffiths blended beautifully in their Act 1 duet, ‘Un soave non so che’, both crafting shapely melodies, and the tenor fearlessly climbed to the top of Rossini’s challenging vocal lines, using the energy of the music to suggest the Prince’s ardency and nobility. Jerome Knox enjoyed his chance to be Prince for a day: his Dandini was confident and ingratiating.

Ferretti gives Angelina no fairy godmother to replace her own absent one. Instead, she has to make do with Alidoro, allegedly the Prince’s tutor. In BYO’s The Rake’s Progress last year, bass Thomas Mole was a splendid Keeper of the Madhouse, a title that might have been just as fitting on this occasion: attired in a tweed suit and adorned with charmingly whimsical whiskers, Mole was an altruistic guardian, ensuring that goodness got its just rewards but retaining just the right touch of mystery and magic.

Jerome Knox Liam Bonthrone Tom Mole Workman.jpgJerome Knox (Dandini), Liam Bonthrone (Prince Ramiro), Tom Mole (Alidoro). Photo credit: Robert Workman.

In the pit, conductor Peter Robinson led the Southbank Sinfonia in a performance that failed to match the dizzying, dazzling action on stage. The instrumental playing was competent but lacked the kaleidoscopic colour and movement which Rossini score offers.

The performance was sung in Wilfred Judd’s 1986 English translation in order, according to Assistant Conductor Chloe Rooke’s programme note, to ‘give the singers the opportunity to communicate directly with an audience and to reproduce English speech rhythms in their working of the musical lines’. Well, they certainly communicated with punch - particularly impressive given the rather unhelpful Peacock Theatre acoustic - but since the open vowels and soft consonants of the Italian language, particularly at word-endings, facilitate the bel canto style, one wonders whether the young singers might have welcomed the opportunity to develop their skills in that idiom.

That said, this was a delightful evening of astute comedy and accomplished singing. The young cast were fully in command of their roles and the drama unfolded with a naturalism that belied the comic follies. Ferretti eschews the dark conclusion of the Brothers Grimm - in which the sisters have their eyes pecked out by doves, punished for their wickedness with blindness - preferring Charles Perrault’s reconciliation in which Angelina pardons her sisters for their former viciousness. Given the current confusions and absurdities of contemporary public life, it’s reassuring to think that, perhaps, a ‘Happy Ever After’ ending might be possible after all.

Claire Seymour

Clorinda - Holly Brown, Tisbe - Natalie Davies, Angelina - Siân Griffiths, Don Ramiro - Liam Bonthrone, Dandini - Jerome Knox, Don Magnifico - Adam Maxey, Alidoro - Thomas Mole, Chorus (Joseph Chalmers, George Reynolds, Matthew Salter, Theo Perry, Ben Knight, Tormey Woods, John Holland-Avery, Joseph Hookway, William Rennie, Matthew Secombe, Samuel Kibble); Director - Stuart Barker, Conductor - Peter Robinson, Designer - Bek Palmer, Movement Director - Caitlin Fretwell-Walsh Lighting Designer - John Bishop, Costume Supervisor - Laura Pearse, Southbank Sinfonia.

Peacock Theatre, London; Tuesday 3rd September 2019.

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