“Una volta c'era un re…” Once upon a time, there was a king. So sooty Angelina serenades us from the hearth in Rossini’s adaptation of Perrault’s Cinderella tale, presented this autumn by Welsh National Opera, Joan Font's production revived by Xevi Dorca. It’s a story that runs much as you expect, albeit with wily court philosopher Alidoro in the place of the usual fairy godmother, with goodness rewarded and snotty arrivistes brought low at the end (more or less).

Tara Erraught (Angelina) © Jane Hobson
Tara Erraught (Angelina)
© Jane Hobson

Joan Guillén’s designs teeter between the sunny and the surreal, a sweetshop whose confections are laced with acid. Costumes are 18th-century(ish), but the wild colour scheme blazes garishly: Hogarth screen-printed by Andy Warhol. The backdrops are plainer, more monumental, like the strange dreamscapes of Giorgio de Chirico: there is a particularly glorious coup de théâtre that sees the fireplace where Angelina toils ascend to reveal two huge and mysterious doors, behind which her wishes shall be granted. 

And there are the mice: six actors forming a rodent chorus, skittering about the stage and cleaning their ears with disconcerting verisimilitude. Their masks, both adorable and slightly unsettling, resonate with the commedia dell’arte background and the enigmatic, dream-like weave of the staging. Their antics are sensitively considered, and reflective of the production’s superb movement direction, heavy on slapstick that sits easily with the hallucinogenic spectacle.  

Tara Erraught (Angelina) © Jane Hobson
Tara Erraught (Angelina)
© Jane Hobson

Tara Erraught gave us a gently humane Angelina, whose attempt to reconcile herself with Don Magnifico and her sisters is genuinely touching; so too is her relationship with the actor-mice, where her kindness and empathy for her fellow downtrodden creatures glows warmly. Her voice is richer and smokier than your usual mezzo, with the charcoal shading of the contralto lower down. These darker hues deepen her characterisation as inward, dreamy, even melancholy, in contrast with the fizz and glitter of her boisterous, preening siblings, Clorinda and Tisbe, sung with just the right degree of sugary, superficial giddiness by Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe. Perhaps it was part of Erraught’s characterisation that it felt slightly as if she was holding something back, the most withdrawn of the characters on stage, which in turn made her pyrotechnics feel a bit understated, though certainly executed with finesse.  

Aoife Miskelly (Clorinda), Giorgio Caoduro (Dandini) and Heather Lowe (Tisbe) © Jane Hobson
Aoife Miskelly (Clorinda), Giorgio Caoduro (Dandini) and Heather Lowe (Tisbe)
© Jane Hobson

A little more command and volume would’ve been welcome from Matteo Macchioni’s Don Ramiro, although admittedly it is not an opera that offers extensive opportunities for the lead tenor in terms of show-off moments or character development, even if his scenes with Dandini sparkled. He has a silken, delicate voice, which although not hefty delivered textbook bel canto singing: I just wish he’d shown off those wonderfully ringing high notes a little more.  

This opera has rather a heavy preponderance of bass and baritone numbers, and Giorgio Caoduro’s Dandini clearly relished his time in the spotlight. But one can hardly blame the cast for bringing such colour and zest to the minor characters. Fabio Capitanucci’s Don Magnifico played his part as social-climbing hypocrite to a tee, and Alidoro was sung by Wojtek Gierlach in one of the star turns of the night: his voice had the velvety authority of Sarastro, albeit on prozac, and he was all magic and atmosphere, impressing with patter and pure cantabile alike. The men of the WNO chorus were full of life too.   

Giorgio Caoduro (Dandini) and Fabio Capitanucci (Don Magnifico) © Jane Hobson
Giorgio Caoduro (Dandini) and Fabio Capitanucci (Don Magnifico)
© Jane Hobson

Tomáš Hanus took things at quite a lick: sometimes if felt like the singers and orchestra were trying to outrun each other when firing off the great salvos of machine-gun patter this opera so mercilessly demands: very exciting, but the price was some coherence in the ensemble. But the orchestra didn’t put a foot wrong when skating over Rossini’s polished surfaces with supreme élan, supported by a particularly tight weave from the string sections, flexible and firm in equal measure.  

The very final seconds offer a dark twist: just at the moment of Angelina’s triumph, the chimney comes down, she’s given back her broom, and the curtain falls as she returns to her chores. It was a dream all along. It’s a clever, off-kilter volte-face, and speaks to the unsettling design and woozy unreality pervading the piece. The text often has characters saying that they can’t believe what’s going on, that it must be a dream, and that all this confusion is bit of a cosmic headache; we might too see the seed of this idea in Angelina’s folkloric ‘Once upon a time’, the tale of a bored king seeking a peasant girl, that absorbs her in the first scene. It’s an unobtrusive but thoughtful take on this sunlit, humane farce. And Angelina’s delusion, if that’s what this is, tells us that there is nothing simple about our fondness for any story that takes place once upon a time. 

****1