A WELL-SUNG AND ENTERTAINING CENERENTOLA FROM VANCOUVER OPERA
ROSSINI, LA CENERENTOLA: Simone McIntosh (Cenerentola), Charles Sy (Don Ramiro), Peter McGillvray (Don Magnifico), Tyler Simpson (Alidoro), Daniel Thielmann (Dandini), Nicole Joanne Brooks (Clorinda), Gena van Oosten (Tisbe), Vancouver Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Leslie Dala (conductor), Rachel Peake (director), Vancouver Playhouse, April 27, 2019.
Vancouver Opera’s latest production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola is the company’s first engagement with this opera in nearly four decades: its last Rossini production was Barber of Seville in 2012. As revealed in UBC Opera’s estimable effort a year ago, there is always something redeeming in experiencing the Italian master’s charmingly bittersweet take on the Cinderella story. Unlike most familiar retellings of the tale, such as the Perrault and Grimm versions, Rossini eschews the usual magical paraphernalia of fairy godmothers, transforming animals, magic slippers and midnight curfews. Instead, he gives us a deeply human interpretation of the story in which the title character is relegated to servant status by a greedy stepfather who wants to maximize the dowries of his two legitimate daughters. Through her own virtue and kindness, and with a little non-magical assistance from the wise philosopher Alidoro, Cenerentola is able not only to capture the prince’s heart but also to forgive and win over her family.
The intimate space of the Vancouver Playhouse proved to be an ideal venue for Rossinian opera. The singers, freed from the necessity of filling a huge theatre, could sing at comfortable volumes and concentrate on precision of delivery and characterization. The ensembles generally came across as clear and well balanced, and the orchestra seldom overpowered the voices. The solo singing was consistently fine, and the characters fit well with their respective roles, even if some interpretations were at variance with traditional practice.
La Cenerentola is one of Rossini’s semiserious operas, in that it mixes humor with sentimentality, laughter with tears. The plot has many comical situations, with the stepfather’s buffoonery and the exchange of roles between the prince and his valet providing rich material for caricature and slapstick humor, but the story also requires the audience to be moved to pity for the heroine’s plight. To engage our sympathies, Cenerentola should project vulnerability as well as strength; we should feel that she is wounded by her treatment at the hands of her stepfather and stepsisters, but that she has the courage to rise above it. Mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh is in many respects ideally equipped for this role, possessing an attractive timbre and a natural-sounding resonance across her entire range. She was equally at home in the ballad-like simplicity of ‘Una volta c’era un rè’ and in the coloratura fireworks of ‘Nacqui all’affanno . . . Non più mesta.’ McIntosh successfully projected her character’s spunk and generosity of spirit, but her communication of a sense of insult and injury at her maltreatment was less convincing. Only in the one scene, when her family abandons her to go to the prince’s ball, did Cenerentola communicate something like genuine grief; otherwise, I found it difficult to be moved to pity for her plight, because she seemed too cheerful much of the time.
As the prince, Don Ramiro, tenor Charles Sy was the perfect vocal complement to McIntosh’s Cenerentola, thanks to his smooth legato, effortless command of his upper register, and sensitive control of phrasing and nuance. His virtuosity and ringing high notes were put to good use in his show-stopping Act II aria, ‘Sì, ritrovarla io giuro.’ Sy’s acting was natural and unaffected yet encompassed a suitably wide range: he could be gentle and tender in his scenes with the heroine, yet gruff and imperious when rounding on her scheming relatives. Daniel Thielmann brought a fine sense of timing to the delightful role of Dandini, the valet who relishes exchanging roles with his master. His entrance aria, ‘Come un’ape ne’ giorni d’aprile,’ struck just the right balance between feigned hauteur and playfulness. Other baritones have exaggerated the character’s foppishness to extremes, but Thielmann wisely avoided caricature and kept Dandini grounded and likable. His rapport with the prince gave a deeper impression of mutual respect and affection than I have previously witnessed.
The audience favorite of this production was undoubtedly the Don Magnifico of Peter McGillvray, an actor with a phenomenal gift for physical comedy. Whether chewing the scenery in his Act I dream narrative, ‘Miei rampolli femminini,’ blubbering hysterically during his bogus account to Alidoro of his stepdaughter’s death, or clambering over tables and chairs to ingratiate himself with the prince in Act II, McGillvray projected an irresistible exuberance and joy. As well, his singing had much to commend it: his enunciation and rapid-fire delivery of Rossini’s comic patter was arguably the most impressive of the entire cast. Tyler Simpson’s performance as the prince’s tutor, Alidoro, sharply contrasted with the usual conception of this character. In place of the dignified, reserved, and elderly scholar, Simpson gave us a middle-aged bloke with a youthful swagger and winning smile: not exactly the typical image of a wise philosopher, unless one has Democritus of Abdera in mind. Nicole Joanne Brooks and Gena van Oosten were both enjoyable as the stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe. Their voices occasionally sounded less resonant than those of their colleagues, but they held their own in the ensembles and had an excellent chemistry with one another, and with Cenerentola.
The sparsely furnished set was simple enough to allow for rapid transitions between scenes, yet attractive enough to permit the audience to immerse themselves in the characters and story. Rachel Peake’s stage direction was entertaining yet unfussy: the gags were charming rather than obtrusive, and it appeared that the singers were given sufficient leeway to construct their characterizations from within. Although there is not much in it, perhaps the men inhabited their roles a little more naturally than the women. One small quibble would be the decision to burden the overture with a pantomime reenactment of the Cinderella prehistory. Is the director assuming that the audience is unfamiliar with the Cinderella story and needs to be enlightened, or does she fear that they are unable to sit through a seven-minute orchestral piece without some visual distraction? I do wish that opera directors would have the courage to trust the composer and give the music a chance to speak for itself.
Overall, this was a particularly well executed and well-sung Cenerentola that aimed to be as lighthearted as possible, giving more emphasis to its comical elements than the more serious emotions lurking beneath the surface of the libretto and score. Although some of the heartbreak and humanity of Rossini’s vision remained hidden, the result was a fully entertaining spectacle with enough bel canto to satisfy any opera enthusiast.
© Nicolas Krusek 2019