Gioachino Rossini: Cinderella (La Cenerentola)
Kristztina Szabó, John Tessier, Peter McGillivray, Michael Nyby, Stephen Hegedus, Caitlin Wood, and Sylvia Szadovszki
With members of the Edmonton Opera Chorus and Singers and the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra
Conducted by Peter Dala
Jubilee Auditorium, Edmonton
Saturday, February 4, 2017
Hugo von Hofmannsthal, librettist for Strauss’s *Elektra*, which will close Edmonton Opera’s season next month, wrote that ‘successes are made by the public, not the critics.’ Surely the critics and the public will find themselves largely of one mind about the success of this production of Rossini’s *Cenerentola*. That said, I overhead one couple grumbling at the intermission that the first half of the opening night had been a dreadful affair, so much so that they would demand their money back on their way out. Judging by the audience’s laughter throughout the evening and enthusiastic applause throughout and after the performance, that couple was in the very small minority. Although I cannot respond directly to the particulars of their criticisms, I must entirely disagree with them.
Rob Herriot’s direction makes excellent use of the full space of the Jubilee; this and the absence of an overture immerse us immediately within the action. Rossini’s pacing along with Mr. Herriot’s use of space make for a kind of cinematic audiovisual experience rather than a traditionally operatic one, entirely suited to a tale so obsessed with visuality. Mr. Herriot’s use of freeze-frame effectively differentiates dramatic asides from conversation, giving a visual component to musical-dramatic form. Dandini (Michael Nyby) makes great use of these moments when he addresses the audience to let us in on his and Prince Ramiro’s (John Tessier) jokes. In addition to the frequent, brief freeze-frames, there are several extended slow-motion sequences that deserve mention not only as effective directorial choices, but also (and even especially) as sites of considerably virtuosity on the parts of the performers. It is no small feat to sing this repertoire in time, in tune, and to fill a hall in a recital setting with good posture and both feet firmly on the ground. It’s another matter entirely to do all of the above while acting out a complex action sequence of physical comedy (complete with punches, flipped chairs, swinging brooms, rolling around on the stage, and the like). Hats off to the chorus and soloists for pulling it off with aplomb, and to the director and lighting crew for creating such effective theatre effect that is so rich in detail, while avoiding keystone cop busy-ness or Paul Greengrass-like hyperactivity.
Temporal concerns aren’t the only dimensional conceit. Characters come and go not just from the wings, but from the back and sides of the hall. This spatial arrangement helps to ensure the permeability of the fourth wall, and also gives much of the audience a close look at costumer designer Deanna Finnman’s wonderful costumes. Those long entrances subtly reinforce the haute couture world of runways and red carpets that are the setting for this production. Kudos are also due to Ms. Finnman for her thoughtful and informative notes on haute couture as fashion genre and her costuming decisions, included in *Intermezzo* magazine. I must also acknowledge the uncredited translator who provided the idiomatic, contemporary English supertitles. They render the humour of the original libretto accessible for those of us who aren’t fluent in 200-year-old conversational Italian. The decision to place the orchestra upstage, behind the main action, works particularly well in the dramatic sense—a subtle lighting change is all it takes for the orchestra to appear in Don Magnifico’s castle during the ball in Act II. This adds an additional layer of difficulty for the performers, however, and at pace (which really clips along!), there were a few moments when the singers and players weren’t entirely together. A minor quibble.
There are strong performances musically and dramatically from all of the soloists. Disguised as the prince, there is plenty of dandy in Dandini, a role soaked up by Mr. Nyby, who takes full advantage of “Come un’ape ne’ giorni d’aprile” to show off his honeyed baritone. Alidoro’s disguises function well enough within the operatic frame (in Rossini’s telling of the tale, Alidoro takes up the part of the Fairy Godmother so familiar from the Disney classic), but the real magic happens for the audience when his true identity is revealed to be that symbol of the haute couture power player, Karl Lagerfeld. The audience’s laughter threatened to cover “Là del ciel nell’arcano profondo,” but not for long, and his aria deservedly won very warm applause for his confident yet tender announcement to Angelina that she’ll be at the ball after all.
Peter McGillivray revels in his role as the crass, bombastic, self-absorbed, opportunistic, weaselly, loving father to Clorinda and Tisbe, Don Magnifico. Comic concerns sometimes border on the edge of getting in the way of musical ones for me. Methinks the exaggerations would be too great in an audio recording, but in the theatre the performance hangs together (and rather reminded me of The Dude from *The Big Lebowski*). The two daughters that Don Magnifico acknowledges, Clorinda (Caitlin Wood) and Tisbe (Sylvia Szadovszki) play off one another as bickering sisters competing for a prestigious marriage ‘ought’ to do, complete with rolling eyes, physical posturing, dismissive gestures, and sighs straight out of *Mean Girls*. They’re well-cast for these roles: similar vocal weights and musical profiles, each in her natural tessitura, underscore the moral similarity of their characters, although they maintain their aural distinctiveness. (That’s good vocal writing.)
John Tessier is in fine form with his effortless top range and crisp diction in full display, even tossing off a top C while tying a bow tie (“Sì, ritrovarla io giuro”). His full costume change on stage (with the help of some strategically placed umbrellas) shocked at least a few in the audience but also gave the opportunity for some comedic staging closely synced to the orchestra. His love interest is sung by Krisztina Szabó. Her haunting andantino “Un volta c’era un re” is beautifully phrased with a where-there’s-smoke-there’s-fire tone. Rossini provides ample room to show off her flexibility and range, particularly in Act II. The smoke was no ruse: there are dazzling vocal fireworks aplenty in the long finale.
Mr. Tessier and Ms. Szabó’s duet in Act I is an especial treat. Emotionally it’s the sweetest part of the whole opera (love at first sight, class transcendence, victory for the downtrodden). The combined effect of their seemingly effortless streams of parallel sixths, along with restrained staging and a monochromatic palette of costumes and lighting (blues) is quite magical.
This production largely makes light of the social commentary on the fickle cruelty of human nature that is undeniable in the score and libretto. This clearly hasn’t be done uncritically or flippantly, and I welcome the approach that wilfully focuses on the comic elements of the story as a hopeful foil against the relentlessly pessimistic headlines and ledes in domestic and international news.
In the last year of his life, Rossini wrote that ‘delight must be the basis and the aim’ of opera; he succeeded in putting that into practice here, and Edmonton Opera’s production does honour to that sentiment. I wholeheartedly recommend attending this production not just for confirmed fans of *bel canto* in particular or opera in general, but for anyone who enjoys live entertainment. Treat yourself: go see this show.
For Mark Morris’ review in the Edmonton Journal, click here.