One of the repertoires Kazushi Ono has focused on as Artistic Director of Opera at the New National Theatre, Tokyo, is bel canto, which had been somewhat underrepresented during previous directorships. Thus he chose to open the new season with a brand new production of Rossini’s well-loved La Cenerentola, a work that was last seen in 2009 in the production by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. Japanese director, Jun Aguni’s fast-paced new staging, with pop and brightly coloured sets and costumes by Rome-based Alessandro Ciammarughi, was full of visual delights and fantasy-filled images, presenting the audience with plenty of feel-good factor.

Alessandro Corbelli (Don Magnifico) and Aya Wakizono (Angelina)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

First and foremost, this was a tailor-made production for the fast rising star, Japanese mezzo soprano Aya Wakizono, currently based in Italy. Following on from her sensational success as Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia at the NNTT in February 2020 (just before the Covid-19 crisis), she returned in another of her signature bel canto roles. Her Angelina could grace the stage of any opera house in the world. In fact, she has sung the role at La Scala in the “La Cenerentola for children” production. She commanded the stage with her warm, intense and velvety voice, technically flawless agilità, and her portrayal of Angelina as a sweet-natured but strong-willed young woman with a dream.

René Barbera (Ramiro) and Aya Wakizono (Angelina)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

Aguni’s main idea for this production was to set it in a film studio in Rome during the 1950-70s, the golden age of Italian cinema. He gives the opera a rather complex “play within a play” framework, introducing movie industry workers involved in the shooting of a new film of Cinderella. While the overture is played, we see the “film director” Alidoro ordering an audition to search for the actress to play Cinderella role, in which Don Magnifico’s two daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe, apply. Angelina, who also secretly dreams of becoming a film star, desperately wants to take part too. Meanwhile, we also learn that Don Ramiro, the son of a famous film producer who has died, is looking for a wife because he won’t get his inheritance if he does not marry. These sub-plots intertwine with the original opera against the backdrop of Fellini-esque studio setting: there is the constant presence of camera and crew, although some intimate scenes – such as the Act 1 encounter between Angelina and Ramiro – happen behind the scenes. Anyone who is an aficionado of Fellini and the films of that period is sure to notice various homages and allusions to the age in Ciammarughi’s design and costumes.

La Cenerentola
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

In this complex, fast-moving staging, the singers played their roles with plenty of comic character but without making it into a farce or romp. Three bel canto specialists from overseas made it through the 14-day quarantine (still imposed on entry to Japan): veteran Alessandro Corbelli as the wily old Don Magnifico entertained us with his patter songs (especially his monologue “Sia qualunque delle figlie”), tenor René Barbera hit Ramiro’s high notes with precision, and sonorous bass Gabriele Sagona, who played the double role of film director/Ramiro’s tutor with suaveness and smooth lyricism.

Meanwhile, Dandini was played by Hayato Kamie, whose voice took a while to warm up in his opening aria “Come un’ape nei giorini d’aprile”, but soon settled to play Ramiro’s sidekick, charming Clorinda (Nobuko Takahashi) and Tisbe (Junko Saito). The stepsisters’ singing I found too mannered to be funny, but in the many ensemble numbers in the opera, they sang their parts with assurance and agility. Overall, the ensemble numbers were stronger than the arias: in particular, the Act 1 quintet, that begins with Angelina’s “Signor, una parola”, was a highlight, showing the musical rapport within the singers.

Aya Wakizono (Angelina) and René Barbera (Ramiro)
© Masahiko Terashi | New National Theatre, Tokyo

The ensembles were kept together by conductor Masahiro Joya, who took over from the originally billed Maurizio Benini. Sometimes the music felt a bit too square (perhaps there could have been a little more playfulness here and there), but he managed to maintain the dramatic tension throughout, which is no mean feat. Takuya Nemoto displayed some skilful improvised continuo playing (on the harpsichord rather than fortepiano), adding some spice to the secco recitatives.

In the final scene, Angelina’s goodness prevails and she is united with Ramiro (or, in this production, realises her dream of becoming a movie star). Wakizono, dressed in a gorgeous pink gown, seem to relish her showstopping “Non più mesta” rondo finale (which is partly recycled from Almaviva’s Barbiere aria), and she poured her heart and soul into it. In the end, it seemed just as much her success story as it was Cenerentola’s.