Cinderella, By Rossini: Seattle Opera, McCaw Opera House @ Seattle Center; Oct. 19, 20, 23, 25, 26, 27, 30 & Nov. 1, 2019
Seattle Opera’s current staging of Cenerentola is mostly fun to watch. It is also a great example of how much work having fun can be, on both sides of the imaginary footlights.
The production hails from Australia, and its description in the program captures the approach perfectly: “Inspired by the whimsical worlds of Charles Dickens and Tim Burton, director Lindy Hume sets the familiar classic in and around a Victorian emporium filled with period costumes, multi-level sets, and unexpected twists.”
Among the twists are: a scene set in a forced-perspective formal garden in summer when the rest of the show seems to be taking place in the dead of winter; a proscenium-filling wall of bookshelves equipped with a fifty-foot-long hidden bar; a number of primly-aproned and -capped nannies with long luxuriant beards and moustaches; and an origami shopfront stocked with collectible Victoriana.
Oh, the music? It was pretty good (as always depending where you’re sitting; in row T on Sunday evening all the singing seemed dry and distant, while from row P on Saturday afternoon the singers seemed to be in the same room as I.
This is Gary Thor Wedow’s fifth round in the pit here, but his first conducting Rossini, a composer whose penchant for long relentless accelerando-crescendo ensembles can make it hard for pit and stage to stay in sync. Wedow and his cast managed to start and end these musical locomotives together, but every one of them (Three? Four?) had its moments of careening out of control.
Wedow doesn’t visibly do cues to individual singers, which constrains them to follow him by ear, which doesn’t encourage them to relax and sing in-the- moment. And in Rossinian comedy, caution is a downer. But he consistently produces lovely sound and tight ensemble in the pit, a strong positive achievement in Rossini’s early manner, which can easily come off both thin and coarse.
Still, La cenerentola is more dependent for success than most Rossini operas on a single number: the title character’s final (only) aria “Non più mesta” (no more sadness). It’s sort of the coloratura contralto’s “Casta diva”: a summation of what the voice type is technically and emotionally capable of at full stretch.
Neither of the gifted artists singing Angelina here is really a coloratura contralto. Each has difficultly producing the frequent very low notes in the role, (lack of power on the low end runs right through the cast) but each has a personal approach to putting across the character’s octaves- spanning streams of ornamented melody.
Ginger Costa-Jackson bets the farm on “Non più mesta,” playing Angelina as a bit of a pill, whiny and sulky by turns, making her transformation to radiant butterfly in the last five minutes of the show absolutely stunning.
Her alternate, Wallis Giunta, takes the opposite tack, playing the character from the top as Disney princess for today, twinkly, spunky, good-humored; think Amy Adams in Enchanted and you’ve got it. Her way with “Non più mesta” is in the same vein; instead of ripping headlong into the roulades, she points them slyly, consciously, inviting us to root for her, a damsel dancing through a vocal minefield.
Her approach to the role may be why I very much enjoyed the Saturday matinée and left McCaw Hall energized, while Friday’s performance left me feeling a bit pummeled by a staging so extravagantly out of scale with the material. (That and those seats.)
The tenor leads and capable supporting players were all personable. Michele Angelini (of the Brooklyn Angelinis) is the Rossini-tenor version of a Bari-hunk: he has a puckish smile, ease of movement, and technique so fast and fluent that it’s easy to believe the rumor that he was long been the go-to tenor to cover for Juan Diego Flórez. In a way his facility with florid music is a bit of a handicap; he makes it seem too easy to be astonishing. But there’s no chemistry between him and Costa-Jackson’s morose Angelina.
Saturday’s Don Ramiro was Matthew Grills. He’s a bit more portly and rough of voice than Angelini, and his make-up gives him the visage an amiable frog. But most important, he and Giunta “click” from first glance: they’re as sure to end up together as Hepburn and Tracy, Rock and Doris, which in romantic comedy is more important than high-notes any day.
All the rest of the cast perform in both versions of the show except for the character of Dandini, Figaro to the Prince’s Almaviva. Friday’s Joo Won Kang and Saturday’s Jonathan Michie sing the notes equally well; but Mitchie, a nimble string-bean in shrieking red velvet, is a born clown; Kang works hard at his schtick, but a comic he isn’t.
The bad-guy trio of Don Magnifico and his vain, grasping daughters (Peter Kàlmàn, Miriam Costa-Jackson, Maya Gour) suffer from having staging’s (and most others) reduction of their characters reduced to completely witless cartoons.
Kàlmàn bills himself as a basso buffo, but he’s not a true bass, and his buffoonery is dryly cynical, not really comic. I would love sometime to see a Cenerentola where Clorinda and Tisbe were permitted to exhibit one trace of human behavior amid the usual enforced gamboling, squalling, and preening, but I’m not expecting to. Still, Costa-Jackson and Gour have lovely voices; they deserve to be treated as more than wind-up toys.
The remaining character (and the singer performing him) stands apart from the general broad superficiality of this staging. Bass Adam Lau has performed primarily secondary roles at Seattle Opera. But the role of Alcindoro, though small is central to Cenerentola.
He’s described in the opera itself as the Prince’s tutor and as a “philosopher.” He also takes the place of the usual fairy-godmother. But he’s not, like her, just a deus-ex-machina. He’s embodies the opera’s alternate title: “La bontà in trionfo, the triumph of goodness: a gentle Sarastro, a sincere Don Alfonso.
Every time he appears, however clumsy his entrance is contrived, he suspends the whirligig motion around him for a few moments of calm, warmth, and good-will. You’d expect it to stop the action cold, and in a way it does; but it leaves us refreshed, better prepared to ride out the turbulent hi-jinx we know will soon be back.
And Lau, though he doesn’t have the resonant bass notes that ground the role, has something more important. A plot device in a greatcoat and top-hat, he’s the most human creature we encounter in the whole show.
A last word: the men’s chorus of Seattle Opera has gotten the reputation in recent stagings (Trovatore, Carmen, Rigoletto) of being a stumbling gang with three left feet each. This time out, with the assistance of choreographer and co-director Daniel Pelzig, their behavior is smooth, even classy; they even manage some deft moves along the way. Let’s hear it for the boys!
(This review is reprinted with the kind permission of Opera Today: operatoday.com)