Photo credit: Nile Scott Studios
Never mind the simplistically staged goals. Forget that the libretto, by Jacopo Ferretti, makes very little sense especially in Act two. Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “La Cenerentola” works — and works quite well! With a very talented cast, an inspiring conductor, and a good orchestra, Rossini and Ferretti’s opera invites everyone to enjoy a wonderful evening celebrating bel canto and unique forms of singing.
In Dawn M. Simmons’s interpretation, the opera is transposed from early nineteenth-century Salerno to present-day Boston. However, geography and time seem to be peripheral elements in her straightforward approach to the opera. Her primary goal is to juxtapose camp vanity against no-nonsense honesty. On one side, we have the performative and narcissistic Don Magnifico and his two horrible daughters who are, of course, digital influencers. On the other, a very sober Angelina, Dandini, and Don Ramiro, guided by Alidoro’s virtuous philosophy; they are stripped of any mannerisms and excessive gesticulations, essentially embodying Boston’s austere spirit.
While the scenarios and costumes were a bit off-key and perhaps the production would benefit from a more austere aesthetic overall, Simmons demonstrates good command of stage choreography. Her singers, more often than not, were very capable of displaying emotions on stage. At times, there were genuinely funny reactions, especially on Cecelia Hall’s part.
Rossini’s vocal lines represent the pinnacle of a transition in how to write for the human voice. While the latter part of the nineteenth century favored voice and text over voice as an instrument, Rossini’s music excels precisely by reminding us of the greatness of the voice as an instrument. His coloraturas are extremely demanding and virtuosic, but his impeccable comic timing shines through in how, in group scenes, the voice, as an instrument, creates a sense of confusion between text and music, and between stage and pit. To make such a brilliant effect work, singers are required to perform at their highest level, and the musical direction has to be as precise as a Swiss clock. David Angus proved to be an excellent conductor. BLO’s orchestra sounded superb, never overshadowing the singers and displaying great textures. Under Angus’s leadership, all the group scenes were energetic and controlled, and the melodic lines were elegantly highlighted.
It is hard not to be enchanted by Cecelia Hall’s Angelina. Possessing a beautiful lyrical instrument, Hall’s voice has a quality that makes Cenerentola a well-grounded figure; beyond thrilling trills, her Angelina makes us believe that she is the most normal person on the stage — the only one that we can relate to. Her coloratura, therefore, instead of sounding like instrumentalisations of herself, is adjacent to her well-commanded lyrical lines.
The challenging psychological problem within “Cenerentola”— why is she seeking the recognition of those who despised and mistreated her — seems to be peripheral to the making of the character. Angelina’s main feature seems to be her niceness and deep-rooted morality. Her voice serves as a moralizing force within the opera. Her “Non più mesta” was an invitation to goodness instead of a showcase of virtue. And her goodness, as opposed to her stepfamily’s wickedness, needs no explanation: it is all present in the voice.
Another highlight of the night was Levy Sekgapane’s Don Ramiro. A very agile tenor — a true leggero — his virtue is defined by the precision of his singing. Sekgapane’s instrument is unique. Given its sharp nature, his recitative sounds as if they were mere spoken phrases, as if he did not even intone them. It does not help that the tenor tends to end his phrases a bit too soon and a bit too short. But, all of this changes in his arias. He is an owner of extremely precise and well-pitched range of high notes. Sekgapane sings as if no mistake would ever happen. The sharpness and quality of emission of this tremble, are as secure as life leading to death. His “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro” was superb, with great command in all registers, and very compelling singing even in the pianissimi.
Brandon Cedel is clearly a talented singer still in search of how to portray Don Magnifico. His approach to the character is to sing a camp caricature of a camp caricature; the exaggeration and gesticulation, though scenically labored, gives the performance a sense of insincerity beyond Magnifico’s bad character. In simpler terms: he tried too hard. Perhaps it was the scenic direction? Magnifico is the father of two digital influencers. To this point, does anyone “try harder” more than Kris Jenner? However, the camp effect did not always work scenically due to a strange search for gestural femininity that often contradicted the music — and his impressive singing. Cedel’s voice is very good. He has a good command over the vowels and seems to be devoted to his character. His voice has a resonance that rings well in the Emerson Majestic Theater.
Levi Hernandez’s Dandini was a showcase of nuances. The baritone has a beautiful voice and is extremely adept at phrasing his lines with rich sound and variations within the phrases. There are few times that one may hear such a pleasurable singer as Hernandez. His character, noble but also comic, shared the qualities of “no-nonsense” similar to Cecelia Hall’s portrayal.
James Demler was an unintentionally funny Alidoro. The singer clearly has the vocal gravitas for the philosopher, but he gained audiences precisely through a charming clumsiness similar to Merlin in The Sword in the Stone. In the second act, when he sang most things from the mezzanine, his voice worked as both a narrator and a moralist of the opera – perhaps a good coup de théâtre by Simmons.
The roles of the vain and narcissistic sisters Clorinda and Tisbe were performed by Dana Lynne Varga and Alexis Peart. Both singers show much potential. More than efficient during the group scenes, they also managed to deal with the scenic demands of such campy and shallow characters.
Overall, this was a very strong musical production of “La Cenerentola.” Although the staging could benefit from a more aesthetic direction, in the end, “La Cenerentola” establishes itself as a necessary opera for today — perhaps the pursuit of goodness and kindness above all might be the gateway to changing such an unkind world.