What has made Rossini and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti’s take on Cinderella survive on the opera stage for almost 200 years now is not only the universal archetype of the downtrodden girl who is redeemed by Prince Charming, nor its enchanting music: the absence of fairy-tale symbols like the pumpkin carriage and the glass shoe (barefoot ladies would have been too outrageous a sight on an Italian stage of the time) has perhaps also helped to make it timeless, practical to stage, and largely director-proof.

Margarita Gritskova (Tisbe), Tara Erraught (Angelina), Valentina Nafornita (Clorinde) © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Margarita Gritskova (Tisbe), Tara Erraught (Angelina), Valentina Nafornita (Clorinde)
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

Sven-Eric Bechtolf helms the Staatsoper’s new production of La Cenerentola – the first genuine première of the season – and does so by rolling practically all available clichés into one that looks original in the context. In this case, Italian Fifties style is represented by cult brands (a bitter, tires, petrol), fancy vintage cars in place of the carriage, sexism (Alidoro leers all over a woman in a swimming suit who sells ice cream from a cart), a communist antagonist or two, as well as a crooner (Dandini makes his entry with a period amplifier trailing on the cable of his microphone). And while some may regard this stereotype overflow as a fig leaf for Bechtolf’s lack of own ideas and his self-professed absence of notable convictions or Weltanschauung, the result is mostly entertaining.

In Rolf Glittenberg’s set (five double doors and empty frames in the Don’s decrepit home, clean period chic with shining cars for Ramiro’s castle), Marianne Glittenberg costumes the all-male choir (a mixed choir often having been unavailable at the houses the young Rossini worked) partly in drag to portray the people of the imaginary “San Sogno”; thus big men as buxom secretaries in tight tops guarantee a few extra giggles, as do the hideous bridesmaid outfits for the evil sisters. Unfortunately, things get unintentionally funny with Angelina’s ballgown: the idea to have the protagonist pick a dress worn by a model can be very effective – like in Robert Carsen’s Zurich production of Semele, where Cecilia Bartoli famously picks a dress from someone at least three sizes smaller and miraculously looks gorgeous in it. But Tara Erraught’s Angelina, who is also a bit on the Rubenesque side, has to put on a totally unflattering dress that makes her cheap house frock look attractive in comparison.

To add to her misfortune, Bechtolf’s otherwise sensible stage direction makes her brush her hair with the brush she has just used to clean the floor, thus denying her what ultimately makes a future princess: attitude, manners and demeanour – even the producers of Hollywood’s Cinderella of the Nineties had enough sense to show that their dirty lady was someone with high hygienic standards and secretly used dental floss (Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman). Still, I found it refreshing that this production ignores two questionable axioms in fairy-tales: goodness doesn’t always equate to beauty and Prince Charming is not solely a reward for a life lived virtuously, but more likely a matter of hormones and coincidence.

Vocally and in a hilarious rendition of their characters, the two excellent ensemble members Valentina Nafornita (Clorinda) and Margarita Gritskova (Tisbe) often steal the title heroine’s show. As the latter, Erraught is capable of singing thrilling descending runs, but intonation in the ascending coloratura wasn’t always flawless and the wide vibrato in the lower register made her sound a bit matronly where one expects youthfulness of a singer her age. Of the men, house favourite Ildebrando D’Arcangelo was announced as sick, but he nevertheless delivered the most solid male performance of the night (Alidoro) – I cannot think of anyone who acts out the clichéd lecherous Italian more tongue-in-cheek than he does. Alessandro Corbelli and Vito Priante’s acting (Don Magnifico and Dandini) was in the same league, which cannot be said of their singing, which generally needed more volume. As Prince Ramiro, Dmitry Korchak sang all his high notes well under pitch during the first half, but negotiated the difficulties of his Act II music impressively, albeit by forcing his top notes. In the pit, Jesús López-Cobos and the Staatsopernorchester interpreted the overture with a lack of eloquence and lightness and executed the rest of the score adroitly, but without any memorable highlights.

No-one knows what will become of the uneven couple Angelina and Ramiro once the wedding is over, especially as in this production, the newly-wed princess can’t let go of her cleaning brush. Musically, there is more room for improvement than can usually be expected of a Staatsoper première run – I would like to see this again with more charismatic leads.

***11