I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for 2019 to end. Finishing the year with a performance of La Cenerentola, Rossini’s take on Cinderella, sounded like the perfect remedy to my year-end blues. It has got all the ingredients. For a start, the work’s full title translates as Cinderella, or the Triumph of Goodness, which promises a welcome escape from the current state of the real world. Plus, there are few things that can lift my spirits more than Rossini’s florid music. It never fails to put the spring back in my step. Finally, I have always found that Laurent Pelly does comedy well – I had just forgotten that he is also a master in digging up those more serious layers underneath the comedy.

Polly Leech (Tisbe), Nicola Alaimo (Don Magnifico) and Julietta Aleksanyan (Clorinda) © Matthias Baus | DNO 2019
Polly Leech (Tisbe), Nicola Alaimo (Don Magnifico) and Julietta Aleksanyan (Clorinda)
© Matthias Baus | DNO 2019

La Cenerentola follows Perrault’s fairy tale quite faithfully. There are a few substitutions: the glass slipper is replaced by a bracelet, the fairy godmother becomes the philosopher, Alidoro, who also happens to be the prince’s tutor, and it isn’t her stepmother but her stepfather, Don Magnifico, and his daughters who exploit Cinderella. In Pelly’s new production for Dutch National Opera, Don Magnifico’s crumbling palazzo takes the form of a maze of rooms in perpetual motion, with 1950s faded furniture and electrical appliances. It is in these tatty surroundings that Cenerentola is forced to work herself to exhaustion. The contrast with the prince’s palace couldn’t be greater: an extravaganza of giant chandeliers, crystalware and period furniture, all in bright pink. Alas, the public soon discovers (spoiler alert) that the prince’s pink palace, like her ballgown and her wedding, are all the product of Cenerentola’s own imagination. She is just daydreaming while she mops the floor in her ill-fitting dirty dress and apron.

Isabel Leonard (Cenerentola) © Matthias Baus | DNO 2019
Isabel Leonard (Cenerentola)
© Matthias Baus | DNO 2019

This disheartening conclusion is the only downer in an otherwise fun-packed evening. Laurent Pelly’s sense of comedy operates its wizardry again and sends the audience chuckling and laughing as few others can do. There are some gags of course but, mostly, it is polished direction that fuels the comedy. The precision with which a step in the choreography or a simple hand or head gesture underlines a fioritura in the music is outstanding. This virtuosic acting fits Rossini’s music like a glove. Making his debut at DNO, rising star Daniele Rustioni conducted the Netherlands Chamber Orchestra in a high-spirited performance, taking risks with tempi that admittedly caused a few slight slips between stage and pit, something that will undoubtedly be ironed out later in the run.

Lawrence Brownlee (Don Ramiro) and Isabel Leonard (Cenerentola) © Matthias Baus | DNO 2019
Lawrence Brownlee (Don Ramiro) and Isabel Leonard (Cenerentola)
© Matthias Baus | DNO 2019

The cast gathered for this production is strong and all gave thoroughly rewarding performances. Soprano Julietta Aleksanyan (Clorinda) and mezzo Polly Leech (Tisbe), both members of the Dutch National Opera Studio, certainly more than held their own and were two delectably viperish stepsisters. Nicola Alaimo was irresistibly funny as the egocentric and dim Don Magnifico. In the role of Dandini, the servant who gets carried away playing the prince for a day, baritone Alessio Arduini was suitably over-the-top both vocally and theatrically. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee needs no introduction in Rossini circles and the elegance with which he tackles the fiendishly difficult music of Don Ramiro is nothing short of baffling. As Alidoro, Roberto Tagliavini’s bass, flexible and ebony-coloured, was just as impressive.

In such outstanding company, Isabel Leonard’s Cenerentola paled somewhat at first, although I suspect this might have been a conscious choice in her characterisation of Cinderella as an oppressed character. Her lyric mezzo, pleasantly round and dark-hued, isn’t particular large and did not carry in the Act 1 quintet “Signor, una parola”, leaving a rather timid initial impression. From her arrival at the prince's ball however, she sounded increasingly more assured and her final rondo “Nacqui all’affanno, al pianto” was sung with superb phrasing and richness of tone. A last moment of beauty before the pink dream vanishes.

****1