Mark Gresham | 6 NOV 2019
The Atlanta Opera opened its first mainstage production of the season on Saturday, Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, starring mezzo-soprano Emily Fons as Angelina (the Cinderella) and Santiago Ballerini as Prince Ramiro. The dramma giocoso in two acts is a variation of the Cinderella fairy tale, minus the supernatural elements. The mean steposisters are there (soprano Bryn Holdsworth and Elizabeth Sarian as Clorinda and Tisbe) but no wicked stepmother, rather a callous stepfather, Don Magnifico (bass-baritone Dale Travis). Instead of a fairy godmother, there is the philosopher Alidoro (bass-baritone Alan Higgs), tutor to the Princ. Crucial to this particular telling is the Prince’s valet, Dandini (baritone Thomas Glass). There is a male chorus of Courtiers from Prince Ramiro’s palace. And there are also the mice — but we’ll get back to them later.
There are many variations to the Cinderella story, the most ubiquitous and influential trlling in American popular culture is that of the 1950 animated musical fantasy film produced by Walt Disney, originally released by RKO Radio Pictures, which is itself based directly on the fairy tale Cinderella by 17th-century French author Charles Perrault. Due to its familiarity, that’s where many public expectations lie.
Rossini’s opera differs, but the same core premise is there: the Cinderella, Angelina, is a good-hearted, beautiful young woman who is oppressed and abused by her step-family – more of a mistreated heroine than a damsel in stress – who is able to change her circumstances and ultimately overcomes adversity and achieve love. Coinderella is an archetype that reinforces the premise that good will always triumph over evil (olr at least human folly). Hence Rossinui’s complete title: La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo (“Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant”). How Cinderella triumphs in this version, rather than through fairy magic, is one part of what makes La Cenerentola good opera buffa.
Much of the plot turns on the hidden identities, where people and situations are not always what they seem. Alidoro first appears in disguise as a beggar. Prince Ramiro and Dandini appear disguiied as each other. Don Magnifico tries to hide the fact that Angelina is anything more than a servant. But the big disguise is the transformation of Angelina, thanks to Aridoro, presenting her at the Prince’s ball disguised as an intriguing anonymous beauty of high social rank. But it is the real Angelina which the prince has fallen in loive with, just as Angelia has fallen in love with Ramiro as himself, presented as a valet, rather than his status as a prince.
Fons and Balllerini are well paired as Angelina and Ramiro, as heard in the Act I Andante grazioso duet “Un soave non so in che quegli occhi scintilló” (“A sweet, I know not what, that those eyes glinted”) where both have substantial passages of the florid vocal acrobatics that mark the bel canto geenre, separately and together.
Thomas Glass, in the introduction of Dandini disguised as the Prince also has “Come un’ ape ne’gioini d’aprile va volando” (“Like a bee in April he goes flying”) had his own capable shots at fioritura. The disguise offered him good opportunity for parody and comic interplay with the real Prince Ramiro.
And then there are the almost ever-present mice. The many human-sized mice in this production are not mentioned in the libretto or score (cf Ricordi edition), so it is easy to presume they were inspired by Disney’s animated film, in which they play an important role as friends of Cinderella, as they appear to here in a more peripheral manner. (Most curiously, one member of the audience at intermission described them as dogs, not mice, though their costuming by Joan Guillén was more than clear enough).
Guillén’s costumes for main cast were not so much cartoonish as highly stylized and bold, the design elements made large for a large hall, perceived well from the most distant seats, as well as heightening the sense of fantasy and comic elements.
Bit if there was a downside, it’s that the opera is not only long (a 90 minute Act I and 60 minute Act II plus intermission, ending just after 11pm), but increasingly fely log and more dragging as Act II progressed. Contributing to that conductor Dean Williamson couldn’t seem to keep the orchestra together as an ensemble – an ensemble that is normally adept at the skill of flexibly following, as a a group, the singers as demanded in Italian repertoire. It’s an opera that largely is a platform for display of singing, not drama, and while it could stand to be a lot shorter, jn terms of theater, it’s a work needs to be kept apace and tight, musically and theatrically.
And yet, despite the somewhat frazzled second act, once the company got to the opera’s final chorus, scene and rondò_finale “Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto” (“I was born of grief and tears”), its was Fons whose performance in that number brought the opera to a satisfying closure, leaving the audience with that feeling of a proverbial happy ending.
Two performances of La Cenerentola remain: this Friday November 8 and Sunday, November 10 at the Coibb Energy Perfirming Arts Center. ■