Receiving its Washington debut tonight to round up the WNO season, Joan Font’s production of Rossini’s bel canto opera, La Cenerentola made for a pleasant if not quite magical evening. That said, in the libretto by Giacomo Ferretti, magic is in short supply, with a prince’s tutor taking the place of the fairy godmother. Billed a dramma giocoso and first performed in the Teatro Valle in Rome in 1817, this is Restoration music: the upstart Napoleon is quelled, the ancien régime is back, hierarchies are restored, everyone aspires to aristocratic status and Cinderella – naturally – wants her prince. But then so do her step-sisters and, for ease of social ascent, so too their shabby-genteel father.

Deborah Nansteel (Tisbe), Paolo Bordogna (Don Magnifico) and Jacqueline Echols (Clorinda) © Scott Suchman
Deborah Nansteel (Tisbe), Paolo Bordogna (Don Magnifico) and Jacqueline Echols (Clorinda)
© Scott Suchman

The production itself was a pleasure to watch. Created, as Spanish director Joan Font proclaimed, “under the gaze of a Mediterranean light”, the whole bore the imaginative imprint of the Barcelona-based theatre group Els Comediants. Joan Guillén went all out for escapism and farce in choosing bright, children’s paint-box colours and bold lines for the costumes (stiff court mantuas on the sisters) topped by preposterously-coloured wigs: all very apt given its fairy-story status. Embracing the fact that this is emphatically not opera in the verismo tradition, the production team opted for the schematic and the geometric in everything: a palace wall divided into squares backlit in primary colours, mirrored doors reversed to reveal a painted carriage and so forth. Even the gestures were ritualised and precisely observed – especially charmingly co-ordinated in the sextet of the “tangled knot” when each character deployed a rhythmic winding and unwinding motion of the hand. But beneath the frivolity – and what value is Rossini if we don’t get a thrilling sense of escapism from harsh realities? – there was a deeper artistic justification for the staging: the highly elaborate bel canto was actually cast into relief by the geometric pageantry. One found that one could focus on the singing.

David Portillo (Don Ramiro) and Tara Erraught (Angelina) © Scott Suchman
David Portillo (Don Ramiro) and Tara Erraught (Angelina)
© Scott Suchman

The cast comprised a good selection of Rossini voices, possessing the requisite agility, lightness and clarity. Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught was making her American debut in the title role, her voice well-moulded to its coloratura demands, especially in the infamous last aria where she needs to cover a greater-than-two-octave range. David Portillo as Don Ramiro had a crisp and well-articulated tenor; he gave us some winning high registers, although he was occasionally a bit thin. Simone Alberghini as the prince’s valet was a wryly comic centrepiece, providing witty bass-baritone mockery of the excesses characteristic of the bel canto genre. Paolo Bordogna was the buffoon father, Don Magnifico: for all his delusions of grandeur, his voice could have been a little more grand at times.

The vocal high-points of this opera are the celebrated ensembles – the weaving of various registers and words, with all their attached ironies, confusions and mutual incomprehensibility, in a bravura arrangement which tends, inexorably, towards an exhilarating climax. The sextets in both acts manifested lovely vocal dexterity and fioratura and for the most part, good rhythmic synchronicity.

Simone Alberghini (Dandini) and Paolo Bordogna (Don Magnifico) © Scott Suchmann
Simone Alberghini (Dandini) and Paolo Bordogna (Don Magnifico)
© Scott Suchmann

Part of the charm of Rossini is to be swept away by what musicologists Roger Parker and Carolyn Abbate call “a deluge of sound”; I’m not sure that we quite got that tonight. The soloists and all-male chorus could have indulged themselves rather more, luxuriated in the excessive beauty of the melodies, and given us more volume. But there was grace and elegance and a general evocation of vocal douceur de vivre, thrown into high relief by the orchestra, conducted by the Italian Speranza Scappucci. After a rather leaden overture, she kept precise control of tempi and of instrumental punctuation.

Although the production itself was attractive, I had a quibble with the role given to the mice in Xevi Dorca’s choreography. A mischief of stage-mice was constantly present: actors whose job it was to accompany Cinderella, comment on the action with gesture, set up scenes, and indeed – in a sly gesture to the fairy-tale element – overturn the carriage so that the prince stops at Cinderella’s house. For the most part, they were innocuous,  but there could be no artistic justification whatsoever for their intrusion into the final sextet of Act I, their antics distracting entirely from the vocal glories. From then on, I found myself in the ranks of the curmudgeons. It must be admitted, however, that the non-singing all-dancing and prancing mice got a louder ovation at the end than most of the singers, and I’m not sure whether the audience or the choreographer more deserved the rebuff. 

***11