Our last three opera outings have been to edgy, depressing dramas (Katya Kabanova, Il Cabeza di Bautista and Susannah), so when friends invited us to Garsington Opera, we were more than happy to go to a bit of light-hearted escapism in the form of Rossini's La Cenerentola. You know what you're getting with Rossini: tunes you can hum on the way home, nicely fashioned crescendos (and, indeed, accelerandos) for the overture and various points in the middle, and a suitable quantity of fast-talking quartets/quintets/sextets, which strike me as the 19th century Italian equivalent of today's rap music. It was our first time at Garsington: the setting is as gorgeous as you can imagine in the lovely gardens of an Oxfordshire mansion. The English weather did its best to spoil the occasion by chucking down buckets of rain and freezing us rigid, but I'm glad to say that it failed utterly. Before the show, Garsington's director Anthony Whitworth-Jones expressed to us the hope that the performers would warm our spirits: they certainly did that, and Rossini's appellation of La Cenerentola as a "dramma giocoso" lived up to its billing.

Rossini and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti provide an entertaining twist on the original Perrault fairy tale: the wicked stepmother is replaced by Don Magnifico, a vulgar, venal would-be courtier of a stepfather; the fairy godmother is turned into Alidoro, the prince's tutor and general manipulator of events, and a French-farce change of identities between the prince and his valet adds to the fun. But what made the evening for me was the comic acting and the supremely inventive staging.

In the Garsington version, the words and music are Rossini and Ferretti's original, but the production abounds with visual gags. The prince becomes the Hollywood star of the movie "Once upon a time", Alidoro is the director, the chorus are the camera-toting paparazzi, and Don Magnifico and the ugly sisters are trailer trash chavs aspiring to break into the big time. What makes the production so impressive is how much fun it manufactures out of how little scenery: Don Magnifico's down-at-heel caravan turns through 180º to become Prince Ramiro's desirable movie trailer, and the image is polished up by a few directors' chairs and some memorably tasteless outfits for the ugly sisters (if you go and see it, you won't miss Clorinda's sparkly green eye shadow). Director Daniel Slater conjures up great comic performances from the whole cast, with every glance and gesture getting laughs; Quirijn de Lang is particularly fine as Dandini, the Prince's valet who is instructed to impersonate his master and enjoys the whole experience rather too much.

The orchestra played with suitable Italianesque enthusiasm and verve, and the fast-paced ensemble numbers at which Rossini excels came across wonderfully. As far as the individual arias went, I'd have to class the singing as "good enough" rather than outstanding (I feel a shade mean in saying this as I came to Garsington two days after hearing Bernarda Fink, who is in rather a different league); the individual singing singing I enjoyed most was Joshua Bloom's deep, resonant Alidoro.

Without question, the audience left thoroughly cheered up. You can forget about opera being highbrow: this was an evening of pure escapist magic.

7th June 2009