Shortly after Rossini's success with The Barber of Seville came La Cenerentola, a reworking of the Cinderella fairy tale, but with a little less magic, and a lot more worldly comedy. It was an instant success and further established the 25-year-old Rossini as one of the greatest Italian opera composers of his day. Today it is one of Rossini's most performed operas, and has retained the freshness and joie de vivre which it doubtless had at its 1817 première.

Joyce DiDonato © Sheila Rock
Joyce DiDonato
© Sheila Rock

While great operas have no shelf life, their individual productions certainly do, and 32 years is pushing it for even the greatest production. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's 1980 production of La Cenerentola, currently playing at the Bayerische Staatsoper, may not yet be as old as your average operagoer, but it's certainly showing its age. The black and white, cardboard cut-out sets look like something from a 19th-century picture book, but appear drab compared to the modern, colorful production at the Liceu, Barcelona. The image of faded grandeur this creates clashes with Rossini's light-hearted music, and the cast's generally spirited performances, making this less of a comedy than it deserves to be.

In spite of the tired production the vocal performances were generally excellent. As Cenerentola's family Alessandro Corbelli, Eri Nakamura and Paola Gardina were superb, not only with wonderful voices (particularly in the case of Nakamura), but with a great sense of the comic roles their characters play. While this was sometimes a little overcooked, it was never inappropriate, and at times they really stole the show with their slapstick comedy. As Dandinin, the Prince's valet, Nikolay Borchev also gives an excellent vocal and dramatic performance, perfectly judging the many comic moments of his role.

Lawrence Brownlee, playing the Prince, may not have the world's largest or most beautiful voice but his coloratura and control are extraordinary, producing show-stopping performances of the role's demanding arias. Taking the lead was the celebrated Joyce DiDonato, whose vocal fireworks brought the house down, and whose infectious charm won the audience's hearts.

Sadly, excellent singing and excellent acting are not one and the same. The opera opens to see the enslaved Cenerentola dressed in rags and grinding coffee for her sisters and father, who give her nothing but abuse. Here DiDonato's effervescent character, so appropriate at the end of the opera, seems somewhat misplaced, and as a result the character lacked depth, feeling more like a caricature of the good-natured heroine who's always cheerful, regardless of the circumstances, a little too Disney for this earthly comedy. In spite of giving one of the best vocal performances of the evening, Shenyang, playing the Prince’s tutor, gave perhaps the worst dramatic portrayal of his character, and was guilty of the "strike a pose and sing" style of operatic acting. In fact, movement was generally an issue with this production. Several of the ensemble numbers were very choreographed, and while at times this was effective and enjoyable, at others it added nothing to the scene, seeming clumsy and overly fussy. Arias were by contrast generally under-adorned with acting, with some characters simply listening when they should have been reacting to what’s being said.

Musically I've rarely had anything to complain about at the Bayerische Staatsoper, but sadly this production failed to live up to the high expectations they set for themselves. From the first note of the overture to the last of the finale there were minor issues with ensemble, not only with the singers, but within the orchestra itself. Even within the overture, there were corners that didn't quite fit together as one would expect from an orchestra of this calibre. These problems were only amplified on stage, with some ensemble numbers becoming a mess of consonants and lacking definition. While it's not always possible to get perfect ensemble in Rossini's fast and exacting music, especially when staging is added into the mix, I felt that some of the problem was on the podium. Antonello Allemandi did a wonderful job with the orchestral colour, giving it a fizz and excitement few can manage, but it felt as though this exciting sound came at the expense of the ensemble, which was a great shame.

While this production has its flaws, both musically and dramatically, it still makes for an enjoyable evening. The wonderful music and comedy provided by the stepfather and the sisters make this worth seeing, and DiDonato's incredible performance in the final scene allows the opera to finish on a high point. Sadly there's only so many times a production can be revived before the life has gone out of it, and I feel this production may be a hollow shell of what it once was.