How to waste a mezzo, in two easy acts

How to waste a mezzo, in two easy acts

La Cenerentola at the Canadian Opera Company, April 28, 2011. Full cast & creative HERE.

Elizabeth DeShong has a gorgeous voice: burnished contralto colour with brilliant top and agile coloratura. Too bad you have to wait for the last ten minutes of the opera to hear it: before that she is given a recurring ditty “Una volta c’era un Re”, and some brief exchanges with the lead tenor which end just as you notice how rare it is to hear a mezzo-tenor duet. A mezzo is wasted on La Cenerentola, the opera which Rossini should have titled Don Ramiro, or the Three Male Voices Having a Ball.

I can’t grasp why this work is still part of the standard operatic repertoire, and why general managers keep programming it. A lot of its music reminds of a lot of the other Rossini’s music. The libation chorus and Don Magnifico’s “Conciosiacosaché”  will bring to mind Le Comte Ory libation chorus, and the tutti scene “Questo è un nodo avvilupatto” in which general confusion rules is not far from the primo finale in Il Barbiere, “Mi par d’esser con la testa”. The basso buffo is like any other Rossini basso buffo. (Luckily you can always count on the good basso buffo to add zest to the bland soup, and Donato DiStefano as Don Magnifico did just that.) Giving verve to Cenerentola’s orchestral blanket and making it dazzle requires coordination, energy, imagination and luck, a feat that the orchestra under Leonardo Vordoni did not achieve. Starting with the workaday overture, the playing was adequate but never rose much higher.

The vocally underused DeShong also seemed to have given up on acting Cenerentola, something that this sketch of a character desperately needs. You would expect that the director Joan Font (& Els Comediants) put a lot into making Cinderella a dramatically interesting character since she’s been given nothing but dusting and sighing until the final aria. This was not in evidence, unfortunately, and there were scenes that made you wonder if the singers were (poorly, nb) improvising their own blocking. Font’s Director Notes, where he describes the Cinderella story as ‘universal’ and ‘timeless’, are risible. A helpless woman being rescued from misery by a benevolent prince? Sure, let’s do that one a few centuries more. The Notes could have easily contained this PS: Don’t forget to set your alarm clocks tonight so you can get up early to catch the royal wedding on TV.

How any director can approach this libretto without being aware of its silliness and conservative politics and proclaim it ‘timeless’ is a puzzle to me.

The men on cast, however, made the best of their roles and did have a ball. Lawrence Brownlee as Don Ramiro had ample opportunity to shine and he did it without fail—he was the star of the evening. Brett Polegato was reliable as Dandini, providing some good comic twisting of the voice and oddball embellishments in his entrance aria. In this version the valet is a little older and slow on the uptake. It is well known to anybody who’s seen them in anything else that Ileana Montalbetti and Rihab Chaieb can sing. This time, they could barely be heard. In a scene with Don Magnifico in act 2 they briefly come to their own, only to disappear and remain unnoticed till the end of the opera, in spite their frequent participation and spectacular costumes.

The choreographed mice cannot replace stage direction, Joan Font. They are funny in the first scene, cute in the next, and annoying the rest of the performance.

What to say. Inexplicable programming decision coupled with unimaginative directorial interpretation and an underwhelmed orchestra is a situation that not even good singing can redeem.

One version of the always entertaining “Questo nodo”:

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6 thoughts on “How to waste a mezzo, in two easy acts

  1. Oh dear. I’m sorry that the evening was so lackluster; I hope chuckling over your prose doesn’t count as Schadenfreude. I don’t think it would be impossible to direct a Cenerentola that really makes it the mezzo’s “triumph of goodness.” At least, I’d love to see someone try to tease out the social issues, structures, etc. which underlie and support Cenerentola’s impossible situation. Maybe? I’ve seen this production on DVD, though, and, yeah, profound it ain’t.

  2. That’s exactly it. I wish somebody would blow open this idea of “being rescued by a prince”, but nobody did that with this opera that I know of. They could use projections or imagery related to Princess Diana or Sarah Ferguson; have clips of the Princess Di discussing her bulimia, or the photos of the paparazzi chase that ended how it ended. Or make Don Ramiro into a fumbling Prince Charles.

    Grace Kelly also died in a car accident, now that I think of it.

    And the exiled Italian nobility is full of law breakers and exonerated law breakers. So, it’s not like there’s not enough material.

    Americans can do a Bush or a Kennedy type Don Ramiro.

  3. How tastes differ! La Cenerentola is I think my favourite Rossini opera of all times. It is so full of wit, fun, and mocking the status quo so persistently — it has hardly ever been done better, imho. Starting with the wonderful “Scegli una sposa, affrettati..” -chorus… followed by Ramiro’s heartbreaking complaint that now, in the bloom of his youth he is doomed to take this choice; Dandini who makes a so convincing parody of how a prince “should” be in the eyes of Magnifico and his fellow bootlickers that Magnifico only very reluctantly believes it when the hoax is solved:

    The wonderful garden scene with the” zitto zitto”… about every scene and chorus… I love the opera (Exception: not if Rockwell Blake sings Ramiro.) Alidoro is the real boss, kind of a fairy god-mother crossed with Gandalf; his aria “Là del cielo..” when he drops his beggar’s appearance and fulfils his other role, providing Cenerentola with a dress and a coach, etc., is absolutely epic.

    Cenerentola: ❤ ❤ ❤ — It is also my daughter's favourite Rossini opera. Top on her list: "zitto zitto" — She tends to shorten the "essatezza, essatezza, essatezza e verità, essatezza….. " to what in German sounds like "poo-tsy-poo-tsy-daw!" and won't stop giggling and dancing around while trying to get this tongue-twister right when she hears it. I can understand her joy 😀
    Her summary of the piece when she recounts: "There's a girl, you know, she is very sad, then this funny guy comes (Dandini) and the one with the d'awwww… (Alidoro with wings) … then it rains, and the lady puts all the flower-pots indoors! And, and.. there are horses!"
    Well, that's about it, all you need for a perfect opera — princes are overrated 😛

  4. Oh and Rossini stole from himself all the time and re-used some pieces; I totally agree with you that the part you mentioned resembles the scene in Comte Ory.

    One of the most obvious re-uses if of course the final aria of Barbiere that mostly gets cut though. It almost got the same lyrics too, “Ah, più lieto..”

    Of course, it is almost exactly the same as Cenerentola’s “Non più mesta..” Rossini used it a third time even if I remember correctly, but I forgot where atm.

  5. She’s three! 😀 No, but in seriousness, I never buy “I Puritani” either — there are many operas of which the plots make you *facepalm. But, I love Cenerentola, I honestly do, maybe because of the bff-relationship Ramiro and Dandini seem to have. They don’t act like master and servant; in the beginning they do, but it stops in total at the garden scene, where the servant keeps interrupting his master, telling him his mentor is a fool and has no idea, according to his perception — and not in such kind words. Cenerentola is never a victim; her “Una volta c’era un rè” reminds me soooo much of Donizetti’s “Quel guardo il cavaliere” … The prince who appears chooses, well yes, innocence, but her sisters in the opera aren’t pretty, neither is the prince bored or lonely — he has a splendid time with Dandini — it is not like the fairy tale on a closer look.
    The original fairy tale is very questionable in its message, as are most traditional fairy tales. The seperation in good and evil alone squicks me. In the opera Ramiro and Dandini pretend… that’s lying, in a way. And they continue to do so, even if it would be no longer necessary, for the fun of it. “Seguitiamo a recitar…” So, well yes, they are “good,” but in German you say “you can’t win a flowerpot” with innocenca e bontà alone. Neither the sisters nor Magnifico are truly evil — they don’t reach Hagen-dimensions. They are just a veritable p.i.t.a. — well that’s more like life is 😉
    I think it is lovely 😀

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