Constant Comedy: Rossini's La Cenerentola at the Washington National Opera

It's been a while since my last post. Life and getting into work somewhat overtook me. That said, I had occasion to write a piece on Washington National Opera's performance of Rossini's La Cenerentola for a work publication and wanted to adapt that here as a review of that performance. This was my favorite performance of the season and a great note to end on. I am looking forward to the momentous season next year with the standard of Carmen, some unusual selections, and the first full Ring in the city in a single season. I will be out for most of the opera in the area this summer, but hope to make and review a few performances. 

General information & synopsis:

La Cenerentola | Gioachino Rossini

Angelina (Cenerentola): Isabel Leonard* (May 9, 13, 16, 19, 21) / Tara Erraught* (May 11, 15, 17m)          
Don Ramiro: Maxim Mironov* (May 9, 13, 16, 19, 21) / David Portillo* (May 11, 15, 17m)
Dandini: Simone Alberghini
Don Magnifico: Paolo Bordogna* (May 9, 11, 13, 16, 19, 21) / Valeriano Lanchas^ (May 15, 17m)
Alidoro: Shenyang*
Tisbe: Deborah Nansteel** 
Clorinda: Jacqueline Echols**  
Conductor: Speranza Scappucci*
Director: Joan Font*
Set and Costume Designer: Joan Guillén*                                                 
Lighting Designer: Albert Faura*
Choreographer: Xevi Dorca*
* WNO debut
** Current Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist
^ Former Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist

Note: I attended the production on November 19th and saw the cast members, with no substitutions, listed for that date.

La Cenerentola, as a fairytale comedy (albeit less of a total fairytale than the Disney version with which we are all so familiar) lends itself well to over-the-top interpretations and almost ridiculous sets and costumes. Joan Guillén’s set focused on a fairly standard grey, two-tiered interior of a house with a chimney to demonstrate Cinderella’s initial drab surroundings. This transformed well into a tall door, opening up endless possibilities, just as the plot does for Cinderella, and to the palace and the ball scene by adding color into the backdrop. It was in the costumes, though, that the magic truly blossomed, with period dresses in vivid pastels highlighting the ridiculousness of stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe, an almost-wedding-appropriate dress for Cinderella poking fun at her transformation while nevertheless enchanting her (with the whimsy of lime green sunglasses added in to disguise her identity), and the men dressed in out fits at once ridiculous and befitting their stations. The entire affair might’ve come off as kitschy, but given the nature of the piece, it felt right in place. The conceit, revealed at the very end, that the whole thing might have been a dream came off as touchingly on point rather than cliché due to its brevity and ambiguity.

Joan Font’s production, driven by these whimsical designs and by the omnipresent cadre of mice that serve as Cinderella’s fantastical helpers, emphasized that very idea of whimsy. The comedy stopped just short of slapstick but maintained an air of ridiculousness. Brilliantly, each character’s role in the comedy varied with their nature. Clorinda, Tisbe, and Don Magnifico were strikingly silly, while the more serious characters of Don Ramiro, Cinderella, Dandini, and especially Alidoro contributed more subtly to the bubbling laughter inspired by the piece.

Behind all of the florid singing inherent to Rossini, the orchestra performed admirably under the unusually theatrical yet precise direction of Speranza Scappucci, supporting singers in a repertoire where the ability to do so is central. Clorinda and Tisbe, played by Jacqueline Echols and Deborah Nansteel respectively, were superbly sung, at times even outshining the principals with whom they share some ensemble moments. If Echols’ seeming investiture in her character seemed to top Nansteel’s, it only served to give the characters individual personalities. Shenyang’s Alidoro was backed by a solid, woody bass that conveyed immediate authority and transitioned seamlessly from beggar to wise man. As Dandini, Simone Alberghini acted as an excellent foil to Maxim Mironov’s Don Ramiro, playing with the clever humor of the servant masquerading as master without stealing the show too much. Unfortunately, his robust baritone lacked the agility to carry Rossini’s lines when he was not slowing them down to exaggerate his feigned nobility.

Paolo Bordogna as Don Magnifico definitely provided the most bluntly comedic performance. His complete comfort and vocal freedom allowed him to focus, sometimes with modern vocal gestures, on presenting a completely absurd man striving for nobility beyond his station. If this sometimes felt like mugging, it was balanced well by the other characters in the opera, whose more subtle interpretations kept the differentiation between characters in line. Maxim Mironov, as Don Ramiro, sang splendidly. While his uppermost register definitely noticeably lighter, less piercing color, he commanded the rest of the voice with surprising volume, flowing beauty, and an unfailingly noble sweetness befitting his role as prince charming, while convincingly playing both the nobleman feigning the servant and the smitten prince. A few interpolated high notes, held just long enough to thrill, solidified his impressive outing. Finally, Cinderella herself. Isabel Leonard, a star on the scene, certainly has the fairytale beauty of Cinderella and consistently demonstrated kindness, purity of heart, and a will to love and be enchanted by it. If she never developed that character to dynamically represent an empowered, wiser Cinderella after her transformation, the fault for that perhaps lies more with Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferretti than with Leonard. Vocally, Leonard’s rock solid consistency and beautiful tone, which while in the mezzo-soprano range suggests the timbre of a soprano, was irreproachable. Indeed, her “Non piú mesta” remained flawless through bird-like ornamentation. Perhaps the only drawback of consistency is a lack of fire and salesmanship on the high notes and exciting moments, but that tradeoff was well worth it, considering the night as a whole. Indeed, as a whole, La Cenerentola was a delightful evening of exciting, consistently high quality performance on all accounts.


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