The story of Cinderella in Rossini’s La Cenerentola that opened Sunday afternoon at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House may not be the one you are familiar with, but it’s just as likely to charm your senses and leave you sighing for the pleasures of romantic love and the imagination of childhood. Judging by the applause, Cinderella was the audience's favourite production of the season.

Karine Deshayes (Cenerentola) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Karine Deshayes (Cenerentola)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

The production revived for this season is the 1967 design by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, who designed and directed some 15 productions for the San Francisco house beginning in 1958. The sets designs, which have been refurbished, portray the pivotal locations of Cinderella’s life: the house of the wicked stepdad Don Magnifico, where Cinderella is little more than an abused serving girl, and the royal palace, where she is exalted and admired as a beloved treasure. In dark gray lines on white, the sets are a collision of 18th century architectural drawings and a mansion by Edward Gorey. Medallions, arches, satyrs, nymphs and gargoyles abound. And in front of this panorama of Baroque and gothic sets parade the brilliantly costumed characters.

Cinderella, aka Angelina, was sung by French mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes. She has indeed a beautiful voice, rich in color and mind-bogglingly flexible, which actually could be said of all the singers, none of whom had any difficulty zipping through Rossini’s fiendish fioritura. Rather, they seemed to revel in the long runs, adding a gleeful fervor to the raucous characters that seemed to have stepped out of the soul of commedia dell’arte and into the decorous and delicious world of fairy tale princesses and princes.

American tenor René Barbera played Prince Ramiro. He has a vivid and focused sound that blended well with Deshayes. Barbera is a graduate of the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center as well as an alumnus of the Merola Opera Program.

Deshayes and her two vain and silly stepsisters, sung by current Adler fellows Maria Valdes (Clorinda) and Zanda Svede (Tisbe), seemed hesitant and almost demure at the beginning of the first act. But with the arrival, or rather awakening, of Don Magnifico, sung and acted with gusto by bass-baritone Carlos Chausson, the sound and the intensity amped up. Chausson was simply alight with daffy ambition and inelegant conniving.

Karine Deshayes (Cenerentola) and René Barbera (Don Ramiro) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Karine Deshayes (Cenerentola) and René Barbera (Don Ramiro)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

He was supported in this comic energy by Efraín Solís, who sang the role of Dandini, the valet who swaps places with Prince Ramiro so that the latter can observe the character of his potential brides. Vigorous and delightful, the two baritones were the twin poles of comic energy that drove the production.

Not only does the wicked stepmom become an avaricious stepdad, but also the fairy godmother is turned into the prince’s aged tutor, Alidoro, sung by bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, who dresses as a ragged beggar in his search to find the kindest and most generous bride for his royal student.

The chorus was all male, assembled as the Prince’s courtiers who move his suit along in fair weather and foul. They were splendid in their red military gear and their black tie.

Gregory Fortner directed what appears to be a revivified version of previous San Francisco Opera productions, and using broad comedic movement. Using Rossini’s music as the guidelines for his actor’s movements, he achieved a highly choreographed interpretation of the opera. At vital theatrical moments the comic characters, and that includes everyone except Cinderella and the Prince, all move to the music, whether stepping with small or large steps, or gesticulating in orderly or disorderly fashion. Then there is the moment between scenes when a group of courtiers huddle under pouring rain in front of the grotesque and dilapidated mansion of Don Magnifico, as an homage to the Gorey-like scenery. Everyone put their most agile and sprightly foot forward. And I applaud Maria Valdes’ ability to stand en pointe, not just once but half a dozen times, and without a support.

Maria Valdes (Clorinda), Carlos Chausson (Don Magnifico) and Zanda Švēde (Tisbe) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Maria Valdes (Clorinda), Carlos Chausson (Don Magnifico) and Zanda Švēde (Tisbe)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Although the exotic and mysterious glass slipper has been replaced by a glitteringly precious bracelet, the opera is not without its human insights. At the palace, in the guise of a mysterious veiled woman, Cinderella sings about her expectations and the man she would love. What does she want? Oh, just what every woman wants from a man: respect, love and kindness.

Rossini and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti wrote La Cenerentola in 1817. Freud should have gone to the opera more often.