BWW Review: LA CENERENTOLA at Winter Opera St. Louis-- Magic Music, Not Magic Pumpkins!
It's exactly 200 years since Rossini premiered his La Cenerentola in Milan. Winter Opera's fine production of this beloved Cinderella work makes a beautiful anniversary gift.
Rossini, at twenty-five, had already composed several highly successful operas. For La Cenerentola he was working under great pressure, and he composed the entire score in just three weeks. Well, he did have an assistant and he self-plagiarized a bit as he often did: the overture was from La Gazetta and part of an aria was from Il Berbiere di Siviglia. But in this short time Rossini produced what critics have called "some of the very finest writing for solo and ensemble."
The truth of this evaluation is vividly apparent in the gorgeous voices that Winter Opera has assembled here.
Now be prepared: There are thousands of versions of the Cinderella story and in this one you will find no magic-no fairy godmother, no pumpkin coach, no mice-into-horses, not even a glass slipper. In 1817 Rossini's special-effects resources were very limited. What we find instead of magic is a great profusion of utterly beautiful music. In this I think Rossini made a very well-advised investment decision.
The Winter Opera cast is led by the beautiful Kate Tombaugh in the title role. It's unusual for an operatic heroine to be written as a coloratura contralto and such creatures are rare. But Miss Tombaugh more than triumphs as our Cinderella. Her lovely voice is full of power and clarity. She projects to the rafters and her diction is crystalline. (I found myself actually understanding some of the Italian!) In the last scene, after blissing through a particularly demanding tour de force aria, "Perché tremar, perché?" she gives us an astonishing crescendo as she soars to that very highest note. Amazing!
Isaac Frishman shows a very strong coloratura tenor as the Prince. His is a truly sweet and graceful voice.
The entire cast is splendid. Basses Andrew Potter, as the wicked stepfather, and Nathaniel Resika, as Alidoro, the prince's tutor, have all the depth and power that one could ask. Joseph Ryan makes a delightful Dandini, the prince's valet. Sharon Sullivan and Robin Bradley are nicely matched as the not-so-ugly stepsisters who charm us with their jealous rivalry. They are all excellently supported by a male chorus of ten.
There are lovely ballads, rapid-fire patter songs that would put Gilbert and Sullivan to shame. There are arias, racing quintets, sextets, chorus numbers and duets to die for.
Scene designer Scott Loebl once again does wonders. It's puzzling that this two-act opera is not a three-act opera. We see the crumbling mansion of Cinderella's step-family, then the elegant Palace, then Cinderella's home again. A natural for three acts, right? But no, Rossini gives us a scene-change in the middle of each of his two acts. Scott Loebl rises to this challenge and gives us a wonderfully quick and graceful change of scenes as the two halves of Cinderella's home swiftly revolve to become the palace-and vice versa.
JC Krajicek once again does beautiful work with the costumes, and Maureen Berry's lighting is lovely-from soft romance to warm comic, with careful management of the audience's attention and flawless use of follow-spots.
Conductor Kostis Protopapas brings the best from his orchestra and maintains admirable balance with the singers.
Stage Director Matthew Haney manages his large cast well, with a number of quasi-choreographed sequences-often in curiously robotic mass movements, and once in a nicely odd stop-action style.
There were some scenes, however, which were simply too static. The opening scene, for instance, has the stepsisters just sitting for too long when they should have been fussing with their hair, their dress, their make-up. And Don Magnifico (the stepfather) simply shuffles on, when he requires an entrance! Magnifico is the principal comic role-a role demanding lively physical comedy. Mr. Potter is long-limbed and tall (he claims 6'10") and is certainly capable of this-but here his movement throughout was simply too timid. A director's failing, I think.
A minor point: I found the thunder-storm lacking in ragE. Rossini is fond of storms, and they can be very exciting on stage. In most modern productions the orchestral bombast is augmented with recorded thunderings. I have no doubt that in Rossini's day they employed the classic old thunder-sheet. Yet at Winter Opera we have a storm with flashes of lightening and no thunder at all. It would have been so easy.
But in most aspects-and certainly musically-Winter Opera's La Cenerentola is well up to their very high standard. It was a lovely evening of wonderful Rossini.
Happy anniversary, Gioachino!