The story of “Cinderella” is one told in many iterations and for good reasons. It’s a feel-good story that is certainly uplifting during trying times.
The well-traveled Jean-Pierre Ponnelle version of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” made a stop this past Sunday at Deutsche Oper Am Rhein in Dusseldorf and it’s not often you witness as many ovations in the opera house as for this matinee. That’s because its appeal is undeniable – everyone knows the story – and the ensemble cast played its role in an enchanting performance that brought the crowd to its feet.
Timeless Plot With Italian Twist
Rather than create a Cinderella story with fairy-tale elements, Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferretti opted to create their version as an Italian buffa piece. At the same time, it must be said that an element of mystery and wonder applies to the character of the wise Alidoro, playing a philosopher and former tutor to Don Ramiro. After all, how else but through magic does Alidoro transform Cinderella into the beautiful princess at the ball?
Other important differences from the fairy tale and the opera include the title character herself, named Angelina, while the evil fairy godmother is replaced with a wicked stepfather in Don Magnifico – one of opera buffa’s greatest characters. This version also saw Angelina give the prince a bracelet to find her as per the original work, as opposed to losing a glass slipper in the fairy tale.
Rossini crafted this opera on the heels of his success with “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” and he knew that laughs were his calling card. Therefore, the premise had to be more than about the evil of Cinderella’s family which consisted of Don Magnifico and spiteful sisters Clorinda and Thisbe. Other versions have tried to remove buffa elements from many of the characters, but Ponnelle’s staging stays true to Rossini’s intentions and the result is plenty of humor. Some of it is so fast and clever that it goes over your head.
A Wonderful Magnifico
While the budding romance between Cinderella and Don Ramiro drives the plot, it is Don Magnifico that has the greatest presence in this opera. Turkish bass-baritone Günes Gürle delivers in spades in this regard, including right from the start in his “Miei rampolli femminini” in his first words as he chastises his daughters for waking him and compares himself to a donkey. Gürle’s blend of funny facial expressions and physical comedy put the audience in the proper silly frame of mind for “La Cenerentola;” his duet with Dandini in which the valet reveals his true identity with the terrific interplay between the pair was among the best parts of this performance. While Gurle’s Don Magnifico is an entirely loathsome character, it’s not to the point where it can’t be imagined that Angelina will forgive him in the end.
Sisters Clorinda (soprano Heidi Elisabeth Meier) and Tisbe (mezzo-soprano Kimberley Boettger-Soller) are similarly zany as the foils to their stepsister. Their high point was their fight for the affection of Dandini as well as their disdain for the “commoner” Don Ramiro that follows and reveals their true character. Romanian bass Bogdan Talos brings warmth and understanding to his Alidoro, imploring Angelina to trust in her heart as she pursues the mystery man she has fallen for.
A Winning Combination
When Angelina spills her tray and falls in love at the first sight of Don Ramiro, the chemistry between the pair is evident. Mezzo-soprano Maria Kataeva plays a radiant Angelina. She looks like a completely different woman clad in an elegant black gown at the ball compared to her servant rags. Kataeva brings forth the innocence and honesty within her Angelina; her purity is in stark contrast to the deceptive machinations of the characters around her.
The American tenor Juan José de León is a convincing Don Ramiro. His “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” heightened the anticipation for finding Angelina and José de León came across as a prince sharing many of the same humble and honorable qualities as his bride.
Baritone Laimonas Pautienius had plenty of buffa moments as Dandini; his repartee in his asides with an often-unamused Don Ramiro was sharp and quick-witted. Bringing this whole ensemble together was noted Rossini specialist Antonino Fogliani in the pit. The maestro had the Düsseldorf Symphonic Orchestra in fine form, limiting instances of overpowering the singers.
Simplifying A Masterpiece
This staging by the late Ponnelle is an old warhorse well-known to opera fans that consists of black and white drawings that help keep the focus on the characters. There is a simplicity to this staging that is appealing to many. It creates a child-like ambience and there is no better opera for children to attend, with a number on hand on this afternoon in Düsseldorf. Ponnelle’s “La Cenerentola” was first staged in 1969 and shows no signs of being usurped. It has drawn applause for nearly half a century and it no doubt will live on.