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La Cenerentola is a godsend to coloratura mezzos. Rossini’s effervescent 1817 adaptation of the Cinderella fable offers an interpretive smorgasbord to any singer gutsy enough to take on the title role. Between the haunting little ballad that introduces Cinderella, here named Angelina, and the bravura aria that closes the opera, the mezzo has an opportunity to fret, flirt, pine, dream, and cheer her way through a slew of perky arias and percolating duets, all the while leaping vocal hurdles that would make most singers balk.
In an era extraordinarily well-populated by coloratura mezzos, a hearty few (Cecilia Bartoli most notably) have made Cenerentola a signature piece. Sonia Ganassi needn’t bow to anyone on the starry roster of recent Angelinas, and she makes a considerable success of the role in the Washington National Opera’s exhilarating new production, imported from London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. With her apple cheeks, bee-stung lips, and large, expressive eyes, Ganassi is a thoroughly charming Angelina. That she sidesteps any temptation toward coyness or sanctimony is no small feat: Rossini’s themes of patient suffering, heavenly redemption, and selfless forgiveness can easily turn cutesy or, worse, holier-than-thou in less sensitive hands. Ganassi, to her credit, wears the character’s humility lightly, accessorizing it with a wry edge and an endearing dose of spunk.
Her vocal endowments don’t hurt, either. This is edge-free mezzo singing that’s plummy and even-toned across a set of notably well-balanced registers, with liquid flexibility to match the florid writing. Thorny patches of ornamentation reveal a technique of vocal production like Bartoli’s—a pigeonlike thrusting and circling of the head—though Ganassi minimizes the gyrations more successfully than Bartoli tends to. Most important, Ganassi acts effectively with the voice, painting a vivid picture of a sheltered girl in the flush of first love.
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She finds a deserving object of that love in tenor Jesús Garcia’s Prince Ramiro. Diminutive of frame and with an almost feline presence, the handsome Garcia calls to mind silver-screen Latin lovers of the ’20s and ’30s. His voice shows an equal allure—light-toned and tightly focused, with pinging high notes, handsome shading in the lower register, and elegant delivery throughout. Now, if he could stop scowling from under those furrowed brows, he’d reveal a lot more light and shade in his character. Looking dangerous isn’t out of keeping with this role, but looking homicidal is a bit of a downer in a frothy comedy.
In Rossini’s version of the story, Angelina/Cinderella is given a fairy godfather named Alidoro—really the prince’s tutor, who masterminds the whole matchmaking scheme. Her wicked stepmother is reimagined as a stepfather, Don Magnifico, who’s equal parts charming rascal, world-weary bourgeois, and outright sadist. And the prince’s valet, Dandini, is made to switch clothes with his master, to throw would-be princess-brides off the scent and allow for some undercover romantic reconnaissance. But where the composer gets really playful is in making Alidoro, Magnifico, and Dandini all basses—and giving them all virtuoso passages to let them show off a little. Indeed, Cenerentola is as much a showpiece for a trio of agile basses as it is for the star mezzo.
The WNO has cast these bass roles from strength—and, significantly, from Italy. In fact, Alfonzo Antoniozzi is about as idiomatically Italian a Don Magnifico as you’re going to find, from the throwaway ease in the language of his hands to his understated way with Magnifico’s buffoonish self-importance. His grainy, orotund voice suits the comedy as neatly as his ghastly comb-over. In contrast, Paolo Pecchioli’s smooth delivery and cool demeanor pay dividends for his role as the all-knowing Alidoro. (The gold wings that sprout and inflate from his evening clothes in Act 1 prove an especially gratifying hoot, given his otherwise patrician manner throughout the opera.) His refined voice packs a surprising wallop, too.
As does Simone Alberghini’s. Alberghini possesses a brighter, more vibrant timbre than the other two basses while matching them in easy command of low-lying tessitura. As Dandini, he’s expert at finding the comic potential in the text, and his clowning is never so broad that we lose sight of the character he’s playing. His handsome features make him a natural as this valet-in-prince’s-clothing, and his elastic range of expression brings an appealing ripple of Roberto Benigni to his performance. Taken together, Alberghini, Antoniozzi, and Pecchioli are good enough to go on the road as the “Three Basses”—if anyone would buy a ticket to such a thing.
Every D.C.-area opera lover should buy a ticket to Cenerentola. The production, which was directed by Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser for Covent Garden in 2000 and is restaged here by Justin Way, gets so much right in terms of comic timing and tone, character delineation, and natural dovetailing of visual and musical language, it feels definitive—which is saying a lot for a production that moves the action to the 1950s. What makes the show such a joy isn’t simply the fun of watching Rossini’s world butt up against ’50s pop-cultural tropes, entertaining though that is. It’s the feeling (not always engendered on the opera stage) that all of the characters are occupying the same theatrical space, that the singers portraying them are throwing themselves into the storytelling with abandon.
It’s a credit to Caurier and Leiser’s original concept, and to Way’s attention to detail, for example, that Angelina’s stepsisters make just as indelible an impression as the other cast members, though they have the least to sing. Mezzo Ann McMahon Quintero and soprano Hoo-Ryoung Hwang are a much younger and more attractive Tisbe and Clorinda than the carbuncled hags they’re so often played as, with bright and communicative voices that help bring them into a believable rivalry with Angelina. Petulant, nattering, and co-dependent, cowed by their bullying father and lost in celebrity-wannabe dreams, they’re the perfect dates from hell. And costume designer Agostino Cavalca makes sure that they always look as if they’d stepped out of the Sunday funnies, with even their gotta-see-’em-to-believe-’em Day-Glo ball gowns outdone by sublimely cheesy nighties (in which they hilariously vamp like a pair of low-rent Jayne Mansfields for a chorus of newspaper photogs).
The costumes in general provide one campy sight-gag after another, and Christian Fenouillat’s set designs create a world of surreal whimsy. Don Magnifico’s house becomes a white box, with patches of ’50s-sitcom tenement wallpaper and paint covering only a smattering of the set. Has the rest of the decor dissolved away from neglect, or has it simply been erased as the family languishes in social insignificance? When it’s time for a coach to whisk Angelina off to the prince’s ball, the walls of the house fly away to reveal a powder-blue Rolls-Royce. The directors use updated scenic elements with savvy, having Angelina scrub the radiator instead of sweeping the cinders, swarming the prince’s party guests around a buffet like a hoard of locusts, and draping the disconsolate stepsisters over a ’50s dinette table to paw through Hollywood fan mags. And when Angelina ascends the throne, she’s welcomed into high society by a stage-filling male chorus, many of whom are in pillboxed, fur-stoled drag.
Perhaps one could wish for more movement and stage business in the big ensembles. But not at the expense of the marvelous precision conductor Riccardo Frizza draws from the singers, R’s rolled like machine-gun fire, high notes popping like firecrackers, syllables spit out at lightening speed and firmly on pitch. Rossini’s vocal ensembles—which whir and chug like the gears of an overwound clock—sound splendidly loopy and uncannily orchestral under Frizza’s baton. He also—with the exception of a flaccid and ill-synchronized reading of the famous overture on opening night—finds all sorts of nuances in Rossini’s instrumental writing, and he takes full advantage of the weightier and more open sound of the renovated Kennedy Center Opera House pit to lend the score a welcome sense of heft.
What a shame that the WNO couldn’t have made its much-ballyhooed return to the newly spruced-up hall with Cenerentola, rather than Manon Lescaut. Why, after all, celebrate with a respectable achievement when you can exult with an outstanding one? CP