There is no doubt in my mind which opera is Rossini's greatest comedy: Il Barbiere di Siviglia often takes that prize, but for me La Cenerentola sings rings (or bracelets) around the more popular of the two masterpieces. Last night in Merrill Auditorium, Dona D. Vaughn's sparkling new production for Opera Maine made Rossini's alternate title, Goodness Triumphs (La Bonta' in Trionfo) abundantly clear.
With what appeared to be a nod to a sort of fairy tale noir, set and lighting designer Christopher Akerlind's created a series of backdrops that felt like a picture book fairytale wed to a Warner Bros. cartoon. Diaphanous, almost transparent pinks and purples defined Don Magnifico's fading estate. The look was completed with an old-fashioned stove, and colorful stairway leading up to the unseen living quarters for Cinderella's cold-hearted, scheming stepfather and stepsisters. With a wink and a nod to the classic Disney classic film, Vaughn deployed human sized mice who hid and scurried about aiding in the scene changes. The effect was both hilarious, and enchanting. Hilarious and enchanting is also the most accurate description of her entire production.
Blessed with a cast that I cannot imagine being bettered today, Vaughn created magic before our eyes. The intricacy of choreographed movement between the large cast and chorus was picture book perfect, the exquisite delineation of each character made the story pop with life. Recitatives came off like well written, witty scripts connecting arias, duets and ensembles with a life force, not something to get through until the next big tune. The comedy was never overplayed, but with Rossini's champagne bubble score, felt and looked funnier than I can recall ever before - and this was perhaps my 20th Cenerentola. I cannot remember the last time I heard actual raucous belly laughs at the opera. No, this was not the gentle comic tittering so often heard in the opera house but genuine, house ringing laughter. I would occasionally take my eye from the stage to look around the house and saw nothing but teeth from huge, open smiling mouths, and . . . yes, my heart kind of exploded seeing that kind of reaction from an entire audience.
Few directors know how to move a chorus onstage as well as Vaughn, and she proved this yet again with this Cenerentola. Each entrance of the Prince's chorus of servants - men of all sizes - paraded on, each identically bewigged, in pink stockings and classic 18th century livery. The effect was both regal and ridiculous and yet beautiful as well.
Also worth a mention: the Proud Mary style choreography for the famous sextet of Act Two. Here, too, was more of the spirit of hilarity and yes, sweetness.
What can one say about the costumes of Milly Hiibel? Delightfully eye-popping, brilliant of color, at times almost architectural, they were a perfect visual match for this production, adding immeasurably to the entire effect. The purple and green creations for Clorinda and Tisbe were over-the-top in elegance and ridiculousness, yet entirely beautiful. Don Magnifico's pajamas then his preposterous fancy man ensemble was given an extra comic punch up by having a train on his coat trailing behind him in a design that would've made Floria Tosca jealous. Brilliant. Likewise, Amanda Clark's hair and makeup designs worked in concert with Hiibel's costumes to make sure everything looked well . . . fabulous is the only word that will do.
And now onto the singers. What an extraordinary cast we were treated with last night: true bel canto artists who fearlessly navigated the intricacies, dangerously vertiginous coloratura of Rossini even adding fioritura that sounded as natural breathing.
I hate to doom a singer to a single role, but Hongni Wu could have a career singing nothing but Cenerentola. The beautiful Chinese mezzo had everything needed, vocally and every other way, at her disposal; expressive features, a voice with a big bright top, a girlishly warm middle voice, and an easy plunge into the lower register. The speed and accuracy of her coloratura was never less than dazzling, even possessing an impeccable old-school trill that thrilled. There were subtle differences in her acting as well. The first time we hear Cinderella's opening, wistful ballad Una vola c'era un Re (There once was a king) it's plaintive . . . almost mournful, but when she repeats it in the second act, there is a change both vocally and visually, and it’s these subtle little details that stand out and make all the difference. Ms. Wu was an absolute delight in every aspect of the role, and in Nacqui all' affanno ... Non piu mesta one of the composer's great razzle-dazzle ending scenas, she quite brought down the house. Once again, as at the first act curtain, the audience went wild with applause and cheering. Bonkers would not be inaccurate, as the ovation went on and on.
Her charming Prince was Jack Swanson who presented a classic handsome prince-in-disguise, and like his Cinderella, had the full arsenal of bel canto necessities – rapid fire technical agility, easily produced high notes, a genuine and all too rarely heard these days, head voice that had a brightness and clarity which helped define his character. Si, ritrovarla io guiro, his bravura aria with chorus, was easily one of many highlights of the night.
Bass Baritone, Patick Carfizzi was born for buffo characters like Don Magnifico, and his turn as the comically evil stepfather was never less than bel canto buffo perfection in both voice and character. Capturing the arrogance, and deliciously smarmy sense of entitlement, Carfizzi sang with relish and aplomb, clearly enjoying the great comic bits laid out for him, as he attempted to reign over the stage all while that crazy coat train trailed his every step.
It was a treat to have Opera Maine favorite, Robert Mellon back in town and owning every inch of Dandini. With actorly flair, Mellon relished his role as "Prince for a Day," taking to royalty as the proverbial duck to water. The comic business devised for his duet with Don Magnifico (involving an ever moving and unavailable chair) had the house in stitches.
Cenerentola's one serious role is the philosopher/teacher, Alidoro who in Rossini's hands is equal parts Gurnemanz and Fairy Godfather. It is Alidoro who directs and dictates the shape of the story, and in William Guanbo Su we had one brought out the best of both of those qualities. With his rich, beautiful basso Là del ciel nell’arcano profondo, flooded the house with a wave of warm sound filled with love and hope, and segued the tale into its first bit of magic, as glitter rained, sparkling down as descending from the heavens a gown for Cenerentola to attend the ball. I normally don't approve of interrupting the music, but the effect was so special, so breathtakingly beautiful, one simply had to forgive the audience for breaking into applause.
Katherine Henly and Rachel Barg took on the comedy team of Clorinda and Tisbe with such delightful absurdity that they threatened to steal the show at every turn. Indeed, stealing the show - and the prince - seemed to be their raison d'etre. Once again comic timing and vocal agility provided the backbone of these two gloriously daffy sisters.
score is, like all great bel canto comedies, deceptive. On the surface we see
and hear music of such delightful charm, bubbling away like freshly poured
champagne, but the dirty little secret is: it's hard. Really hard. With
time and key signature changes, music that shifts from legato to staccato,
melodies that begin with one instrument that flow into another, accelerandos
and ritardandos that come and go without warning . . . it's all standard in
the work of one of music's true geniuses. Then there is the balancing of voices
against (or rather hopefully with) the orchestra, be it a solo, a duet
or an ensemble with full chorus.
The ingredients required are many and holding the entire thing together last night was Maestro Israel Gursky, a man who clearly gets Rossini's magic and knows how to transfer it from the stage and pit directly to the audience. From the outset of the overture, through the dazzling finale, Maestro Gursky kept the Rossinian flame lit with just the right amount of everything: security, control were ever evident as they must be to keep the entire thing from collapsing or becoming a train wreck, but at the same time there was buoyancy and brightness to make it all come alive. Indeed, it is always something of a joyous miracle to hear all of the intricate coloratura from the singers, particularly in ensembles, perfectly coalesced with the rapid passagework coming from the pit.
While La Cenerentola was well attended, it was not sold out, and that is a pity. I want everyone I love to be able to see this. As it so happens, there is one more chance, this coming Sunday afternoon. If I were you, I wouldn't miss it for the world.