The Met’s playful production of Rossini’s great, loveable and busy La Cenerentola is back and in excellent hands. The 1987 production, originally mounted for Cecilia Bartoli, has blue-and-grey striped sets by Maurizio Balo, with Don Magnifico’s home in need of repair (patched walls, leaky roof), a sofa with a missing leg, and costumes (also by Balo) that seem to come from the 1920s and ‘30s – feather boas and flapper dresses for the sisters, tuxes or dark suits for the men, a green jacket with gold buttons for the Prince’s valet (worn, of course, by the Prince for most of the opera). The final scene, in the palace, is an empty room into which is wheeled a gigantic wedding cake which the happy couple ascend via a rear ladder – it’s very silly, especially when they dismount almost immediately and the effect isn’t that grand to begin with. The Prince’s men – the chorus – are in pale make-up and dressed in dark suits with bowler hats; the surreality of René Magritte cannot be accidental and it’s utterly charming here.

Cesare Levi’s direction is mostly sensitive and intelligent: when Don Magnifico, in Act I, describes his weird dream about a donkey landing atop a ringing church campanile, the rear wall parts and we see just that – it is whimsy at its best. And he’s not afraid to underline the heroine’s sweetness or sadness, let alone Magnifico’s cruelty. At its best, this is a very human reading. On the other hand, there is a bizarre food fight that closes the first act; one chair too few at the dinner table leads to stupid slapstick in which, one assumes, the Prince should never participate, but he does. And the sisters are so grotesque and obvious (lying about in nightgowns, smoking and reading trashy magazines) that they could never pass royal muster. But enough of that; it is bel canto and one cannot imagine it being served any better.

Joyce DiDonato is singing the title role at the Met for the first time. She continues to prove her worth as one of the ideal opera stars on the stage today. Winsome, sad, loving, forgiving, and overall, strong of character, her Cinderella is perfect. The medium-sized, focused voice is full of colors, her coloratura is spotless, her use of dynamics and splendidly original ornamentation is a delight. Her journey from poignant and forlorn to forgiving and victorious is both vocal and dramatic.

One must admit that it is hard to upstage DiDonato, but tenor Javier Camarena, filling in for Juan Diego Flórez in the role of the Prince, almost walked away with the show. He made a marvelous impression earlier this season in La Sonnambula and was just as impressive here. Perhaps not as nimble with his semiquavers as Flórez (or Brownlee), the voice is more beautiful and big – with high Bs, Cs and an interpolated D ringing through the house. Camarena is a small man but he moves splendidly, acts well, sings off the text, phrases with the elegance of Alfredo Kraus, and has wonderful chemistry with his leading lady. (The same was true with Diana Damrau in Sonnambula.) The ovation after his second act aria and cabaletta went on for quite a while – with him offstage.

Alessandro Corbelli, the Dandini in 1997, is now Don Magnifico, and he is an utter pro. The voice is still juicy, the diction flawless, the patter and breath control spot-on. And he captures both the character’s nastiness and his groveling nature. Pietro Spagnoli, making his house debut as Dandini, is impressive; funny and fluent, with a rhythmic sense that helps to hold the ensembles together. Luca Pisaroni, the Alidoro, cuts an elegant figure and delivers his one big aria handsomely. Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Risley overact (as directed) as the sisters, but hold up their vocal lines admirably.

Fabio Luisi leads a tightly controlled performance, allowing the wackier moments (first act finale and outstanding second act sextet) full rein and drawing back for the opera’s more tender moments. The Met Orchestra and men’s chorus are at their best. All in all, a fairy tale revival.