Oslo's new production of Rossini’s operatic Cinderella story – La Cenerentola – marks Norwegian director Stefan Herheim’s first foray into the world of Rossini. Herheim sees the opera as a giant clockwork, the many arias and ensembles ticking away with mechanical precision. This results in a precisely choreographed and dazzlingly theatrical production, in turns thought-provoking and riotously funny.

© Erik Berg
© Erik Berg

Herheim’s Cenerentola opens on an empty stage, with a cleaner going about her business while the orchestra tunes. The overture begins, and down from the fly loft comes Gioacchino Rossini himself – paunch, toupee, angel wings and all – deus ex machina-like on a cloud. As he conducts the orchestra with his quill, it’s as if he is willing the opera into being. While he has assembled the rest of the cast – reserving the role of the cruel father Don Magnifico for himself – Rossini doesn’t have a Cinderella. Luckily, the cleaning lady also onstage seems to be available. Herheim is not at all interested in making this outstandingly silly opera make any sense, but rather he embraces the silliness and proto-Dadaist absurdities whole-heartedly with dancing and visual gags bordering on slapstick. In one particularly inspired moment in the Act I finale, the main characters have all donned dinner tables and are singing about their confusion whilst the chorus tries to eat their heads.

© Erik Berg
© Erik Berg

The sets by Daniel Unger and Stefan Herheim place the opera in an ever-expanding fireplace, finally looming over the stage like the proscenium of a theatre. The fireplaces come apart to reveal the inside of a house, with video projections on the back wall subtly commenting on the action. This is a production primarily concerned with the creation of stories, constantly blurring the line between fiction and reality. The big storm scene in Act 2, where the prince’s carriage conveniently breaks down outside Don Magnifico’s house, featured the two wicked stepsisters controlling the smoke machine, and Alidoro playing the thunder machine! The production provokes thought in its many gags, but Herheim doesn't over-intellectualise to the point of robbing it of all semblance of humour.

Matching the fast-moving, wondrously theatrical production, was the singing, with a surprisingly good ensemble cast, matching each other note for note. Anna Goryachova’s Cenerentola – Angelina, as she is called in the opera – was not at all as angelic a character as she usually is made out to be. This Cinderella takes her inspiration from several versions of the story, resulting in a decidedly more cynical portrayal of the title heroine. Goryachova’s voice was alluringly dark, with steely high notes and remarkably clear coloratura, befitting this more sinister characterisation. When she sang about forgiveness as her revenge in her final aria, it seemed less a magnanimous deed and more a genuine threat.

Anna Goryachova (Cenerentola) and Taylor Stayton (Don Ramiro) © Erik Berg
Anna Goryachova (Cenerentola) and Taylor Stayton (Don Ramiro)
© Erik Berg

As Don Ramiro, Taylor Stayton displayed a wonderfully bright sound, clarion high notes and dealt with the many coloratura runs with apparent ease. His ardent, sweet-toned prince was a good vocal contrast to Goryachova’s more dangerous timbre, and he proved an excellent foil for Aleksander Nohr’s buffoonish Dandini. As Dandini, Nohr was not quite as vocally accomplished as his colleagues, with a throaty baritone lacking in fullness, although it improved throughout the performance. He did, however, get through the role’s many fiendish runs admirably, and his loveable stage persona made up vocal inadequacies. Michael Sumuel’s mellifluous and sonorous bass was a sheer delight to listen to as Alidoro, the prince’s scheming philosopher, with a meaty bottom and middle section.

Alongside Goryachova’s double role of cleaner and Cinderella, the most interesting role in this production was Renato Girolami’s double stint as Cinderella’s father Don Magnifico and Rossini. Girolami proved a remarkable comic actor, juggling authorial authority and buffoonish bluster with ease. He also displayed admirable diction in the many patter sections. Don Magnifico’s two other daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe, Eli Kristin Hanssveen and Désirée Baraula respectively, were delightfully hammy.

Renato Girolami (Don Magnifico) © Erik Berg
Renato Girolami (Don Magnifico)
© Erik Berg

In the orchestra pit, conductor Antonino Fogliani whipped up a storm. The music whizzed along at breakneck speeds, but instead of feeling rushed, it sounded fresh and new. Fogliani highlighted the music's dance qualities, which were underlined by Herheim’s choreographic direction. Helping the conducting along from the stage were not only Girolani’s Don Magnifico, but also the male chorus, who looked adorable in their angel wings and toupees, also modelled after the composer. They sang with a forceful, but well-balanced sound, adding much humour with their galloping around on stage.

Opera productions that ostensibly deal with the creation of opera can often be dull and lifeless, yet Herheim’s Cenerentola proves a welcome exception to that rule. It is a thrilling spectacle with and coups de théâtre lurking behind every corner, coupled with equally impressive singing. And if nothing else, the gentlemen of the chorus have never looked quite so angelic.