There were two love affairs on the stage of the Edinburgh Festival Theatre last night. As well as the well understood matter of Angelina and Don Ramiro (aka Cinderella and Prince Charming), there was the fact that director Stefan Herheim unequivocally adores La Cenerentola. And I say that without fear of contradiction, because never before have I seen a director pay such loving attention to every line of an opera and come up with such a gushing torrent of ideas where each one seems so perfectly in place.

Taylor Stayton, Nikolay Borchev, Michèle Losier, Renato Girolami © Xavi Montojo
Taylor Stayton, Nikolay Borchev, Michèle Losier, Renato Girolami
© Xavi Montojo

It’s not that Herheim is playing it straight: in fact, he spends a lot of the opera with a wickedly subversive streak. So when Ramiro, at the height of rapture, sings that if his beloved “were in the lap of Jupiter, I would find him”, Angelina is happily in Jupiter’s lap, being flown across the stage in a Pythonesque cartoon cloud – Ramiro, of course, is far too focused on singing his heart out to the audience to notice. The subversion gets stronger as we go on: the gap between Angelina’s sweet words and her all-too-knowing glances makes us wonder just what sort of married life Ramiro is letting himself in for. There’s a wicked coup de théâtre, which I won’t spoil, at the very end.

Taylor Stayton (Don Ramiro) © Xavi Montojo
Taylor Stayton (Don Ramiro)
© Xavi Montojo

Herheim works his cast extremely hard: they are continually in motion with pin sharp choreography. The overture alone could have been a ballet, so neatly was the movement executed. The cleverly executed sets, by Herheim and Daniel Unger, make use of virtuosic videography by fettFilm, which is trompe l’oeil but not photorealistically so: we are placed in phantasmagorical worlds of flowers, Disney castles, cascades of musical notes, clock machinery. At the centre of it all is the composer himself, a conceit Herheim has used before: we see Rossini literally conjuring up the action out of thin air with strokes of his quill pen, scattering the score around the stage. Things get truly surreal when the chorus turns out to be dozens of clones of Rossini (the familiar image of a middle-aged portly Rossini rather than the handsome 25 year old who wrote La Cenerentola), and more surreal still when Rossini’s famous gluttony turns cannibal. The staging breaks not only the fourth wall but also the boundary between stage and pit, with conductor Stefano Montanari involved in improbable and entertaining ways.

© Xavi Montojo
© Xavi Montojo

This production opened originally at Herheim’s home city of Oslo and moved thence to the Opéra de Lyon, the company who have brought it to Edinburgh. Montanari and the Lyon orchestra were superb, showing verve, bounce and delectable lightness of touch to keep everything moving along nicely without ever taking over from the singers. The chorus were in fine voice.

Vocally, two singers stood out, both of whom sang at the Oslo première. Taylor Stayton is an exemplary Rossinian tenor: the top register has zing and lustre, the cascade of decorations are beautifully phrased and his demeanour exuded charm: it’s a voice I could have listened to all night. Renato Girolami, our Don Magnifico, held everything together, the entertainment of his comic bluster not masking the fact that here is a tightly focused, melodious bass. Girolami also remained audible and intelligible through his many buffo patter numbers, on an evening in which one couldn’t say the same of several of the other singers.

© Xavi Montojo
© Xavi Montojo

In the title role, Michèle Losier turned in the most striking acting performance of the evening, shifting gears at will between the fairytale good girl, the haughty princess-to-be and the put-upon serving girl who will, one day, get her revenge (thoughts of Kurt Weill’s Pirate Jenny kept coming into my head). Her touch for Rossinian decoration and phrasing matched Stayton’s, but her dark mezzo lacked the same brightness of timbre at the top of her range and, she therefore didn’t quite have the same impact. Within a strong supporting cast, Simone Alberghini was a notable Alidoro.

This is comic opera direction at his best, where the director is continually messing with your head, pulling you in unexpected directions and making you laugh and think at the same time. Combined with two top class pieces of Rossinian singing and an orchestral performance that’s everything you could wish for, this is a production not to be missed, if you can catch it in its remaining performances here in Edinburgh or when it next returns to Lyon or Oslo.

****1