23 March 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giaochino Rossini – LA CENERENTOLA (A. Crider, J. Blalock, L. Hernandez, D. Hartmann, Z. James, A. Theis, K. Kelly; Opera Roanoke, 22 March 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA at Opera Roanoke (22 March 2015)GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): La CenerentolaAmanda Crider (Angelina), Jonathan Blalock (Prince Ramiro), Levi Hernandez (Dandini), Donald Hartmann (Don Magnifico), Zachary James (Alidoro), Angela Theis (Clorinda), Kathryn Kelly (Tisbe); Opera Roanoke Chorus; Roanoke Symphony Orchestra; Scott Williamson, conductor [JJ Hudson, Director; John Lipe, Stage Manager; Costumes by Sueann Leung; Wigs and Makeup by Beckie Kravetz; Set Designs by Jimmy Ray Ward and Laurie Powell Ward; Set Construction by Joey Neighbors; Lighting Design by Tláloc López-Watermann; Opera Roanoke, Jefferson Center, Roanoke, Virginia; Sunday, 22 March 2015]

It seems inexplicable that an opera as popular and endearing as Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola was not presented on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera until 1997. Even the composer’s elephantine Guillaume Tell had been mounted by the MET, albeit in trimmed editions first in German and later in Italian, and Il barbiere di Siviglia entered the MET repertory as early as 1883. In the MET’s inaugural production of Il barbiere, Rosina was sung by coloratura soprano Marcella Sembrich, who was also the MET’s first Lucia, Violetta, Gilda, Amina in La sonnambula, and Elvira in I Puritani, and this illustrates an important point in the performance history of Rossini’s operas. It was not until a decade later, in 1892, that Rosina was sung at the MET by a voice similar to that for which Rossini composed the part: Jane De Vigne, also the MET’s first Malika in Lakmé and Meg Page in Falstaff, returned Rosina to her intended mezzo-soprano Fach, though the restoration was hardly permanent and efforts at resisting the charms of a high-soprano Rosina like Lily Pons or Diana Damrau are futile. Both Rosina and the eponymous heroine of La Cenerentola were created by Bolognese contralto Gertrude Righetti, a singer whose brief career was shaped in large part by her collaboration with Rossini. Even when La Cenerentola premièred at the Teatro Valle in Rome on 25 January 1817, a year after the triumphant first production of Il barbiere di Siviglia, Signora Righetti was already an anomaly: by the second quarter of the Nineteenth Century, the coloratura contralto voice was drifting towards extinction alongside castrati and hautes-contre. Whereas Rosina could be appropriated by higher voices with minimal and largely innocuous alterations to Rossini’s vocal lines [not that respect for the letter of a Rossini score has ever been any great concern], Angelina could not be so handily ‘lifted’ for performance by sopranos. Thus, she waited, biding her time until the emergence of singers like Fedora Barbieri, Giulietta Simionato, Marina de Gabarain, and, later, Teresa Berganza, Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, Cecilia Bartoli [the MET’s first Cenerentola], Jennifer Larmore, Vivica Genaux, Joyce DiDonato, and the irreplaceable Ewa Podleś. A performance like the one offered on Sunday afternoon by Opera Roanoke leaves no doubt that the tender, tenacious heroine of Rossini’s and librettist Jacopo Ferretti’s adaptation of Charles Perrault's Cendrillon deserved the public’s patience. With high production values, lofty musical standards, and a noteworthy cast, Opera Roanoke’s witty, winsome Cenerentola proved anew that world-class opera is not the property only of larger companies with deep-pocketed patronage and Chagall murals in their lobbies.

Directed by JJ Hudson with imagination and sensitivity to the fact that the principals have devilishly difficult music to sing, Opera Roanoke's production of La Cenerentola fostered an environment in which the singers could engender sympathetic characterizations without being distracted from singing by an overabundance of manic goings-on. Stage manager John Lipe kept the show moving at Rossini’s frenetic pace, managing entrances with expert timing. Sueann Leung's costumes and Beckie Kravetz's wigs and makeup perfectly conveyed the ‘shabby chic’ quality of Don Magnifico’s ostentatious household and transformed the ‘restored’ Prince and Angelina in the opera’s final scene to glamor worthy of the Monaco of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly. Tláloc López-Watermann’s lighting unfailingly focused attention where the score indicates that Rossini wanted it centered, something that is far rarer than it should be. Designed by Jimmy Ray and Laurie Powell Ward and constructed by Joey Neighbors, the simple but evocative sets handsomely complemented the attractive human denizens of the stage, honoring the presiding spirit of the composer’s fanciful tale rooted in very real emotions. The production team collectively provided many clever details that lent the performance individuality and personality. The replication of the birdcage and model ship that decorated Don Magnifico's crumbling castle in the marvelously gigantic wigs worn by Clorinda and Tisbe to the Prince's ball was ingenious, and the business with Dandini reclaiming a chair 'borrowed' from Ramiro's palace by Don Magnifico in Act Two was hilarious. Opera Roanoke's Cenerentola succeeded as few productions that I have attended in the past several seasons have done in attracting young people to the opera: if their laughter is a reliable indication of their enjoyment of the performance, Opera Roanoke surely secured a number of dedicated future patrons.

The company's Artistic Director Scott Williamson led the singers, the players of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra, and the nine gentlemen of the Opera Roanoke Chorus in a rollicking account of Rossini's score. The orchestra played the Sinfonia, borrowed from the composer's La gazzetta, premièred between Barbiere and Cenerentola, with exuberance and impressively secure intonation from the brasses and woodwinds. As the performance progressed, the orchestra's playing became even more assured, culminating in a raucous account of the Temporale in Act Two, in which it must be admitted that the absence of percussion from the orchestra was regrettable. Taylor Baldwin's harpsichord continuo was expert, keeping secco recitatives—the work of Luca Agolini, not Rossini—fleet and nimble. In a larger venue, the choral singing might have seemed anemic, but in the Jefferson Center the Cavalieri were suitably robust of tone, especially in 'O figlie amabili di Don Magnifico, Ramiro il principe or or verrà' and 'Scegli la sposa, affrettati' in Act One. Their singing of 'Della Fortuna instabile' in Act Two was lovely. In an ensemble of nine, individual voices occasionally emerged with infelicitous prominence, but in ensembles with the principals their voices blended immaculately. With all of the music forces responding to his leadership with complete dedication, Maestro Williamson paced a performance notable for intelligent choices of tempi and scrupulous attention to maintaining tautness of rhythm and ensemble. A number of the world's large opera companies could learn much from Opera Roanoke about making the most of their resources and putting all of their efforts at the service of the music.

The lustrous singing of soprano Kathryn Kelly made it particularly lamentable that Rossini and his librettist did not invent more for Tisbe to do. Ms. Kelly ran with the music that she had, interacting humorously with her colleagues and exhibiting comic timing worthy of Carol Burnett. As Cenerentola’s other spoiled stepsister, soprano Angela Theis was also a consummate mistress of Rossinian comedy, launching Act One with a lively 'No, no, no, no: non v'è chi trinciar sappia così leggerissimo sciassè.’ She took the high line in ensembles with poise, showing off a fine top B, and her singing of 'Ah! Parlar, pensar vorrei, parlar, pensar, non so' and Clorinda’s string of sustained top As in the Act One Finale was first-rate. Her voice shone in the Sextet in Act Two, and she gave a fine, genuinely funny performance of her aria, also the work of Luca Agolini, 'Sventurata! sventurata, sventurata! mi credea comandar, comandar seduta in trono,' capping the vocal line with solid top B♭s.

Bass Zachary James physically towered over his colleagues as Alidoro. Costumed like a hybrid of Georg Friedrich Händel and Sir Isaac Newton, he looked as though he could have stepped out of an episode of Blackadder. He dominated the stage whenever he appeared on it, not least in his exchanges with Angelina and the wonderful Quintet in Act One, a number in which all participants sang beguilingly. Rather than employing the aria by Agolini sung in the first production of La Cenerentola, Mr. James sang the aria that Rossini composed for the 1820 Roman revival of the opera, ‘La, del ciel nell'arcano profondo.’ This is the logical choice, and Mr. James’s traversal of the piece justified its inclusion. He deployed some impressive notes at the bottom of his compass both in the aria and in his anchoring of ensembles, and his slyly amorous beckoning of Clorinda at the end of her aria was riotously droll. Though strong and accurately-pitched throughout the range, Mr. James’s voice occasionally sounded slightly hollow, but his Alidoro was an unusually vivid characterization.

Is there any part in his Fach that bass-baritone Donald Hartmann cannot sing entertainingly? Having excelled as the Huntsman in Rusalka and Baron Douphol in La traviata with North Carolina Opera and Sulpice in La fille du régiment with Greensboro Opera, he was again on sterling form in Roanoke as Don Magnifico in La Cenerentola. In the cavatina in Act One, 'Miei rampolli femminini,' Mr. Hartmann focused his dark, distinctive timbre in an imposing delivery of Rossini’s music, an achievement repeated in the patter and seemingly endless—or so it must appear to the singer—profusion of top Es in 'Mi sognai fra il fosco e il chiaro'  and in the de facto cabaletta, 'Per pietà quelle ciglia abbassate.' His pomposity as the newly-appointed court sommelier was side-splitting. In Act Two, Mr. Hartmann sang commandingly both on his own and in ensemble, but the highlight of his performance—and, indeed, of the performance as a whole—was Magnifico’s duet with Dandini. Mr. Hartmann‘s dumbfounded grumbling of 'Senza batter, senza battere le ciglia' was priceless. Negotiating Rossini’s bravura writing was not without effort for him, but he approached Magnifico’s challenges without hesitation. Receiving Angelina’s tender pardon in the opera’s final minutes, Mr. Hartmann’s Magnifico seemed suddenly transformed from a blustering fool into a touchingly frail old man: unlike many Magnificos, this one ultimately deserved his stepdaughter’s magnanimity.

Levi Hernandez is one of the few baritones singing today who makes a movingly three-dimensional figure of Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and he proved to be an equally effective Rossinian with his animated portrayal of Dandini. He hurled out the top Fs in the Act One cavatina 'Come un'ape ne' giorni d'aprile va volando leggiera e scherzosa’ with aplomb, and his singing in the duet with Ramiro, 'Zitto, zitto; piano, piano,' was fantastic. Mr. Hernandez’s method of singing coloratura was sometimes idiosyncratic, but he sang every note that Rossini asked of him, firing off ringing high notes and offering a fine trill. He joined Mr. Hartmann thrillingly in their duet in Act Two, 'Un segreto d'importanza,' and his part in the Sextet, 'Questo è un nodo avviluppato,' was rendered with concentration and compelling bravado. Even among such top-notch colleagues, Mr. Hernandez stole the show with his dynamic Dandini, his confident acting and good-natured comedic antics completing a standard-setting musical portrayal.

North Carolina native Jonathan Blalock was a dashing, boyishly suave Ramiro who wore his heart on his sleeve and made expressing adoration in sixteenth notes seem the only meaningful way of doing it. Many Clorindas and Tisbes are undoubtedly lured by Ramiro’s rank and riches, but Mr. Blalock was a Prince the sisters could love as a man rather than a moneybag.  Beginning with his honeyed 'Tutto è deserto' in Act One, he was credible as aristocrat, pseudo-valet, and lover. The duet with Angelina, 'Una soave non so che in quegl'occhi scintillò,' was sung elegantly, his mastery of the coloratura passages cresting on top A and B never deserting him. The sincerity of his statement of 'Una grazia, un certo incanto par che brilli su quel viso' was obvious. The Quintet, duet with Dandini, and Act One Finale inspired Mr. Blalock to forceful but beautiful singing and unerringly-projected ascents above the staff. 'Sì, ritrovarla io giuro,' the Prince’s aria at the start of Act Two, asks for four top Cs, which Mr. Blalock tossed off with ease before caressing the vocal lines in 'Pegno adorato e caro che mi lusinghi almeno.' Two further top Cs crowned ‘Dolce speranza, freddo timore dentro al mio core stanno a pugnar,’ and another was interpolated at the cabaletta’s close, but it was the ardor of the tenor’s singing that established the Prince as a swaggeringly virile hero of the swashbuckling kind. Mr. Blalock was more adventurous with ornamentation than his colleagues, decorating his music tastefully and interpolating higher options in several passages. The security and reliability of his upper register were indeed admirable. Most importantly, though, he radiated the charisma that his rôle requires: even if he was not singing, when he flashed a cheeky smile at the audience it was impossible not to feel that, the zany machinations of the plot notwithstanding, all would end happily.

Mr. Blalock had in mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider an Angelina​ fully worthy of the Prince’s devotion. Starting with a lovingly-phrased voicing of the haunting 'Una volta c'era un re,’ Ms. Crider carved in the frothy context of Opera Roanoke’s production a deeply-felt, warmly feminine Cenerentola who was down but never out. The girl’s budding love for the disguised Prince resounded in Ms. Crider’s singing in the duet with Ramiro, 'Io vorrei saper perchè il mio cor mi palpitò,’ her coloratura in the lower octave expressive of her suspicion of new emotions, and she phrased 'Una grazia, un certo incanto par che brilli su quel viso' with fervor. The simplicity of her shaping of Angelina’s pleas to her stepfather in the Quintet, 'Signor, una parola,' was moving, and her cry of 'Ah! sempre fra la cenere, sempre dovrò restar?' was heartbreaking. The Act One Finale prompted Ms. Crider to grand singing in 'Sprezzo quei don che versa fortuna capricciosa,' and as the character’s future seemed to grow brighter so, too, did the singer’s vocal colorations. The reprise of the canzone 'Una volta c'era un re' in Act Two was even more beautiful than its first appearance. After enduring ridicule, abuse, and rejection by her adopted family, this Cenerentola dominated the opera’s final scene as Rossini intended. Ms. Crider’s delicate but strong voicing of 'Sposa...Signore, perdona la tenera incertezza che mi confonde ancor' was suggestive of a kind heart bolstered by an iron will. Her singing of the andante 'Nacqui all'affanno e al pianto’ was as affectionate as it was effective, her grace threatened by neither the coloratura nor the ascent to top B. A reworking of the frequently-cut tenor aria 'Cessa di più resistere' from Il barbiere di Siviglia, Cenerentola’s rondò finale, 'Non più mesta accanto al fuoco starò sola a gorgheggiar,' is a bravura showpiece as imposing as any in opera. Undaunted by the fiendish coloratura writing and top Bs, Ms. Crider exhilaratingly brought down the curtain on an extremely appealing Cenerentola.

One of the joys of writing musical criticism is the opportunity that it offers to revisit performances in words that hopefully convey at least some measure of their fascination. Opera Roanoke’s performance of La Cenerentola was just that—fascinating. In the ongoing struggle to ensure opera’s survival, so many of the genre’s everyday combatants—singers, conductors, directors, impresarios, and even audiences—lose sight of the true power of this most confounding, most cathartic of art forms. Taken at face value, opera will never be relevant; no more than the novels of Charles Dickens, the poetry of Lord Byron, or the canvases of Vincent van Gogh are relevant. However they otherwise sustain and enrich life, these things do not give the average man, woman, or child food or shelter. It is unlikely that anyone in the audience for Opera Roanoke’s performance of La Cenerentola could actually relate on a personal level to being a prince or marrying one, but few people cannot sympathize with feeling unappreciated, alienated, and hopeless. La Cenerentola affords us an opportunity to laugh at ourselves, and Opera Roanoke’s performance enabled the audience to do so while also savoring compellingly virtuosic Rossini singing. Is that not always relevant?