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”: