Monday, May 19, 2014

Cinderella, or Bel Canto Triumphant

Rossini's La Cenerentola
Met - May 2, 2014

Lui: Despite the serious moral pretensions of its subtitle, Rossini’s La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant) is pure opera buffa replete with all the musical fireworks that one comes to expect from a buoyant bel canto Rossinian romp. When it’s done right, it’s good. So good that you just can’t get enough, especially when the singing is amazing. As was the case in this run at the Met.

Juan Diego Florez sparkles as Prince Don Ramiro
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Lei: As there’s nothing more depressing than a below average tenor, there’s nothing more wildly exhilarating than an extraordinary one like Juan Diego Florez. We basically bought these Cenerentola tickets because of him (and Joyce and Luca too), so we were disappointed when we heard that he was canceling the first three shows of the run. We then regained a bit of hope when we heard that Javier Camarena was replacing him and got to look forward to catching this up-and-coming Mexican tenor. Then again, Juan Diego surprised us when he recovered sooner than expected and ended up performing for us after all. It’s always amazing to hear how his voice so effortlessly projects and fills the Met’s space with a sound so precise and pure and perfect Italian articulation. His tone is gracious, fresh and tender at the same time. Juan Diego’s virtuosism for bel canto is truly unparalleled among any living tenor I’ve seen. His acting is perfect too, convincingly ranging from ardent lover to prankster to irate monarch in the same act, keeping the public hooked whenever he’s on the stage. Florez clearly has the rock-star ability to literally drive audiences wild, this time so much so that he just had to concede an encore of “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro.” Which he could not refuse to do, perhaps because Javier Camarena also encored this same aria the week before? No matter the reason, Juan Diego was sensational and we were so very lucky to catch him.

Joyce DiDonato at her best as Cinderella
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Lui: This cast was packed full with talent. Joyce DiDonato has some of the most spectacular technique of any mezzo soprano I’ve heard live, and, unlike the tenor situation, there is no famine of talented female singers right now. She is consistently agile as she runs up and down the signature bel canto scales and fully devours all of Rossini’s vocal acrobatics. The range of this character is also striking because it combines coloratura acrobatics with extremely tender passages that Joyce DiDonato embodies so beautifully. Her agility defies the ordinary dictates of breath. She embodies every note of her challenging arias with a chesty presence in ways that few singers either male or female are capable of. More than any other singer tonight, Joyce DiDonato sent tingles through my body with the piercing purity of her technique and her sound. Especially in the passage that climaxes with the delicately plaintive yet profoundly optimistic “Nacqui all’affanno.” She filled the hall with her voice, in a way that I’ve only ever heard Juan Diego Florez do. She played the space of the Metropolitan Opera house as though it were an instrument.

Lei: Sure, the roles of Cinderella and the Prince are nice, but a great part of this opera’s success relies on the comic force of characters such as Don Magnifico (the greedy decadent stepfather), Dandini (the waiter acting as Prince), Tisbe and Clorinda (the gold-digging stepsisters). These are really the characters that have the best punch lines and sing the most colorful hilarious bits of the libretto. Think about Dandini’s “compliment” to Tisbe and Clorinda: “son tutte papà” (they look like their daddy). Or else when he is told that the prince’s choice of bride may be a bit more bizarre than expected, Don Magnifico wonders in an aside: Che volesse maritarsi con me? (Could it be he wants to marry me?).

Don Magnifico jockeys with Dandini
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Basso buffo Alessandro Corbelli and baritone Pietro Spagnoli were terrific as Don Magnifico and Dandini. Whenever I hear Italian singers at the Met (which is unfortunately not that often), I am reminded of what a difference it makes to hear native speakers perform, particularly when the nuances of the language are so important as in this hilarious libretto. Corbelli and Spagnoli not only savoured each word and delivered great coloratura duets, but were also highly entertaining comic actors. One example of the many duets they made shine is the one where Don Magnifico lists his extravagant expectations for his oh so desired status of father of the prince’s future bride:

Dandini breaks the news
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Abbia sempre pronti in sala trenta servi in piena gala, due staffieri ~ sei cocchieri, tre portieri ~ due braccieri, cento sedici cavalli, duchi, conti e marescialli a dozzine convitati, pranzi sempre coi gelati poi carrozze, poi bombè, ed innanzi colle fiaccole per lo meno sei lacchè.*

To which Dandini responds, taking off his mask:

Vi rispondo senza arcani che noi siamo assai lontani. Ho un lettino ~ uno stanzino; ma piccino ~ ma meschino. Io non uso far de’ pranzi; mangio sempre degli avanzi, non m’accosto a’ gran signori, tratto sempre servitori. Me ne vado sempre a piè, o di dietro una scappavia, se qualcun mi vuol con sé.**

The stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe are another important slapstick pillar of the opera and also in charge of extensive and challenging coloratura arias. Soprano Rachelle Durkin and mezzo Patricia Risley were vocally solid and funny to watch, maybe at times forcing the hand a bit on the silly end, though never disturbingly so. 

Daddy and his darlings: Son tutte papà
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera

Fairy godmother Alidoro
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
Alidoro is a character with many hats: trusted advisor of the prince, disguised beggar testing the sisters’ good heart and Cenerentola’s fairy godmother (in this production with a very literal pair of golden wings; his name means “wings of gold”). Luca Pisaroni did a fine job with his ironically solemn acting and always strong expressive singing, though I believe he really shines in more dynamic roles (think Leporello or Caliban).

The plot is of course very simple and really just almost an excuse for a triumph of exhilarating delightful Rossini music, pure bel canto explosions and hilarious opera buffa moments. There are a number of digressions and skits that do not add much to the story but are wonderful mediums for pure operatic head-spinning entertainment. La Cenerentola is on the long side (2 hours and a half hours with 2 intermissions), but it really never has a dull moment and it’s so deliciously bubbly that one wants to drink more and more of it, particularly when Fabio Luisi is conducting.

Goodness always shines through
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera 
Lui: This is obviously how most of the audience experiences the opera: frivolous and fun. But Rossini’s Cenerentola functions on two levels. The message that the audience drinks down with this bubbly beverage is a simple one, but its worth stating: goodness triumphs in the end. At every turn the librettist, Jacopo Ferretti, gives Cenerentola the opportunity to demonstrate magnanimity, generosity, kindness and forgiveness. It is her greatness in spirit that wins out in the end and the careful listener will pick up on just how forcefully this facile lesson is hammered home throughout the opera, amidst all the effulgent humor and musical inventiveness, especially at the end. The Cenerentola character is more fleshed out and multi-faceted than the rest of the cast, and this production does a particularly good job of emphasizing this aspect of the opera. Only Cinderella and the Prince appear without mime-like white powder make-up on their faces. 

The belle of the ball
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
But this is also a thematic aspect of the character. She is not as shallow as the others, like her half-sisters, for example, who are cruel, self-centered, miserly and generally clueless. Cenerentola on the other hand is quick to perform acts of charity when early in she doesn’t hesitate to help a hungry beggar in need. She confesses outright that he she isn’t interested in the man she thinks is the prince (Dandini the lackey in disguise), and admits to having developed romantic feelings for a man who occupies a far humbler station, his page boy (really the Prince in disguise). And then when she finally winds up on top of the wedding cake with the actual Prince, she doesn’t seek revenge against the family that had abused her for long. Instead she pleads for mercy and makes a case for why they should all be forgiven and embraced by life in the new court. And so: Goodness triumphs in the end.

Lei: The sets had several whimsical nods to surrealism: a Magrittian chorus of men with umbrellas, suitcases and bowler hats, parting asymmetrical walls, a wedding cake topped with actual singers playing the nuptial couple and a dream-like scintillating sea from which Cinderella emerges at the ball. While at first Cesare Lievi’s sets seemed too bare, as the opera progressed I got to appreciate their subtle irony since at the end of the day fairy tales are by definition surreal. Mime-type make up for virtually all characters except for the Prince and Cinderella was also an interest contrast to emphasize the “true” couple.

Cinderella magically emerging from the sea
Photo credit: Ken Howard / The Metropolitan Opera
The singers-topped wedding cake
Photo credit: Sara Kulwrich / The New York Times
The surrealist take was conceptually intriguing, with some things working nicely, as the trick of tying all the singers in a tangled knot, liberalizing the metaphor in the Act II sextet “Un nodo avvilupato,” and some others not at all, like the absurd trattoria-style feast à la Un Americano a Roma. All in all, I do prefer the 1981 movie version of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s landmark La Scala production, which is definitely more traditional but also more effective in conveying the social contrasts between the Don Magnifico household and the Prince’s palace, its caricature chorus of male lackeys more fitting the joyful music and more visually engaging than a group of stern grey men out of a Magritte painting.

– Lei & Lui
Un nodo avviluppato
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera

A royal palace banquet?
Photo credit: The Metropolitan Opera

* Always have thirty servants in full livery, with 116 horses. Invite dukes in coaches by the dozen for dinners with ice cream.
** Frankly, that won’t be possible. I never give dinner parties. I eat scraps, mix with servants, and travel on foot.

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