Seattle Opera 2019-20 Review: La Cenerentola
Ginger Costa-Jackson Leads Comic Cast In Fantastic (Though Not Fantastical) ProductionBy John Carroll
Let’s face it: operatic comedy is extremely hard to pull off. When was the last time you saw a comic opera production that was truly, authentically funny?
Australian stage director Lindy Hume came about as close as one can to achieving this in Seattle in 2016 with her outlandish “Le Comte Ory” (retitled for marketing purposes as “The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory”). It was a Month Python-esque romp, where time periods munged together and conventions were turned upside down to hilarious effect.
A year later Seattle mounted her “Barber of Seville” that was favorably received for its over-the-top farcical wizardry. Hume’s current staging of “La Cenerentola” (again retitled for commercial reasons as “Cinderella”) makes for another fizzy, entertaining Rossini evening.
A Victorian Romp
According to Hume’s published director’s notes, she chose to set the work in Great Britain in 1840 for nostalgic reasons: “La Cenerentola” was the very first opera ever produced in Australia that year. The early Victorian era is as good as any with its frivolous fashion trends and eccentric character types that align well with Rossini, being only about 20 years after the work’s premiere in 1817.
One of Hume’s trademarks is bringing the theater to life as soon as possible. Her darkly updated “Rigoletto” last season started before the prelude’s first notes. “Cinderella” begins right with the overture as the handsome Prince, in a crimson velvet suit no less, is presented a Victorian slideshow by his entourage that features a flurry of photographic portraits of potential brides, all of whom he dismisses by metaphorically swiping left with dexterous speed. This prologue was not only chuckle-worthy, it ignited the narrative fuse of the Cinderella story: the Prince can’t find a bride!
Magical Production Values
This version of the story by librettist Jacopo Ferretti can be a little confusing to modern audiences because it differs in significant ways from the classic tale we are so accustomed to: there is no wicked stepmother, no fairy godmother, no pumpkin carriage, and no glass slippers.
In fact, Hume has affirmed in her notes that there is absolutely no supernatural magic to be found in this opera — all the transformations happen from within the characters themselves. The production probably should have focused more on clarifying some of these unfamiliar “non-magical” elements, especially the character of Alidoro, the Prince’s tutor who nudges the story forward, who was a cipher in this production.
There was visual magic in production designer Dan Potra’s settings, especially “Don Magnifico’s Emporium,” a catch-all mercantile stacked from floor to ceiling with toys, gadgets, wigs, hats, and all manner of frilly outer- and undergarments. Portions of both acts were set in the palace gardens, manicured to a cartoon-like perfection with a forced perspective so comically extreme that the two stepsisters frolicking in their Victorian lawn tennis couture resembled giant air balloons. This entire outdoor sequence had a lively glow, thanks in large part to lighting designer Matthew Marshall.
The Act two storm interlude was one of the night’s most visually delightful moments with the chorus performing a fluidly choreographed series of moves with their umbrellas — think “Singing in the Rain” meets Busby Berkeley — all courtesy of choreographer and associate director Daniel Pelzig.
In the performance on October 25, Ginger Costa-Jackson was a petite, fragile looking Angelina, but one with glint in her eye. Her personal magnetism was in full force throughout the opera and I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, even more so in Potra’s elegant ball gowns.
Her rich mezzo is so forthright it was a stretch to believe that she would stay stuck as a servant to anyone for long, let alone this clownish Don Magnifico and his two utterly inept daughters. The darkly veiled quality to Costa-Jackson’s tone worked against Cinderella’s innocence and was at odds with the sentimental pathos that weaves through her music, such as the folk song “Una volta c’era un re” where we first hear her voice, and that reappears later in the opera.
The grand coloratura flourishes of “Sprezzo quei doni che versa Fortuna capricciosa,” which launches the Act one finale, were all in place, but the phrasing was overly aggressive instead of elegantly commanding.
When it came time for the well-known triumphant rondo finale “Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto,” Costa-Jackson dove energetically into the flights of bravura, using graceful hand gestures to visually accentuate the elaborate vocal filigree to winning effect. She relished the long runs in the cabaletta that plunge into her lowest register, but the last top B that crowns the opera just didn’t soar. Although a gifted actor and singer, she lacked the vocal polish of a true Rossini specialist who dazzles, all while making it seem way easier than it is.
Her Prince Ramiro, however, was exactly that kind of singer. Michele Angelini’s tenor was light and lithe, easy and even, with presence and panache. His coloratura high-jinks were thrilling and tossed off with such apparent ease as to belie the solid technique that made then possible.
Though a classic leggiero tenor, he summoned plenty of vocal gusto for “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro,” his big aria in Act two, reveling in its many joyous high notes. Angelini was as tall, dark, and handsome as one imagines a fairytale prince could be, yet came across as the charming guy next door.
Hilarious Supporting Cast
I’ve never found the stock buffo characters in Italian operas to be interesting, but Hungarian bass-baritone Peter Kálmán has made me re-evaluate those prejudices. His Don Magnifico was genuinely hilarious, managing to blow the dust off two centuries of buffo comic traditions with this fresh, funny take on this obnoxious drunkard. With a big, bright voice and crisp diction, Kálmán deftly elevated his dream aria and the wine-tasting scene to high points.
The comic antics of Joo Won Kang as Dandini also hit the mark. He savored every moment in disguise as the Prince and basked in all the luxury and privilege that same crimson velvet suit afforded him. His chummy chemistry with Angelini’s Ramiro was appealing and Kang’s vocal confidence put everyone at ease.
The predictably dimwitted stepsisters portrayed by Miriam Costa-Jackson and Maya Gour were appropriately silly and cloying. The pair had worked out a couple amusing bits of business, the best was being instantly hypnotized by their own reflections in any nearby mirrors. However, aside from one being a soprano and one being a mezzo, and one dressed in green and one dressed in maroon, they had the exact same doltish energy. If they had been encouraged to explore more contrast in their characters’ attitudes, we would have witnessed greater comic variety and invention.
Adam Lau was a weak link as Alidoro, His take on the character was inscrutable, and his unfocused bass has a wooly quality that failed to win me over.
Rossini’s chorus is scored for only men, though in Hume’s hands several were imaginatively costumed as women (seemingly the burliest guys with the biggest beards!). The fun they were having was infectious.
Conductor Gary Thor Wedow guided the orchestra to a crisp and balanced sound. He kept things moving but was not able to overcome the aural monotony that sets in midway through a full evening of Rossini. As vivacious as the music is, there is a certain point when everything just starts to sound the same.
But in all, this was a performance to relish in a production that produced continuous laughs.