19 May 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Gioachino Rossini – LA CENERENTOLA (T. Erraught, D. Portillo, S. Alberghini, V. Lanchas, Shenyang, D. Nansteel, J. Echols; Washington National Opera, 17 May 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Giaochino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA at Washington National Opera, 17 May 2015 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera]GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfoTara Erraught (Angelina), David Portillo (Don Ramiro), Simone Alberghini (Dandini), Valeriano Lanchas (Don Magnifico), Shenyang (Alidoro), Deborah Nansteel (Tisbe), Jacqueline Echols (Clorinda); Washington National Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Speranza Scappucci, conductor [Directed by Joan Font; Set and Costume Designs by Joan Guillén; Lighting Designs by Albert Faura; Choreography by Xevi Dorca; Washington National Opera, John F. Kennedy Memorial Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, DC; Sunday, 17 May 2015]

Who has not dreamed of being transformed by the unseen hand of fate into a beautiful princess or of being the magnanimous prince who values pulchritude of spirit above loveliness of face and form? These are the fantasies personified by Angelina and Ramiro, the protagonists of Gioachino Rossini’s 1817 comic masterpiece La Cenerentola, and their journeys from downtrodden housemaid and lonely bachelor to partners in marital serendipity can be some of the most enjoyable adventures in opera. The score is vintage Rossini, with whirling coloratura, manic ensembles, and frolicsome crescendi aplenty, but the true heart of La Cenerentola is the well of sadness that lurks beneath the brilliant patina of Rossini’s polished music. The most successful productions of the opera are those that draw from that well without bleeding it dry, and this is precisely what Washington National Opera’s production achieved in spades. Comedy is meaningless if the audience is given no reason to care about the characters whose antics inspire mirth: in this performance, the audience’s ebullient hilarity was an organic response to the exploits of an unusually lovable cast. For a few hours on a balmy Sunday afternoon, a congregation of people united by nothing more than holding tickets to the same performance laughed together without concern for race, religion, or social status. Equality, Rossini intimates, really can be that simple.

Conducted by Speranza Scappucci with the flexibility and genuine Italianate finesse missing from so many of today’s performances of Rossini’s operas and bel canto repertory in general, WNO’s Cenerentola—a production shared with Welsh National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu, and Grand Théâtre de Genève—was in a number of ways a feast for the senses. Visually, Joan Guillén’s sets and costumes placed the action in a fantastical fairytale dominion in which ladies were effortlessly prepossessing, men were heroically handsome, and even the shabbiest creatures had the good taste to adopt genteel manners. The rainbow-colored costumes, complemented by outrageous wigs in corresponding hues, were a vital component of the comedy: who else in opera but Don Magnifico could pull off donning a ripe-grape purple suit and periwig? Alidoro’s celestial robe was straight out of Harry Potter, and the choristers looked like a splendid hybrid of the Swiss Guard and courtiers of Carroll’s Queen of Hearts. Mr. Guillén’s designs shone in the glow of Albert Faura’s intelligently-managed lighting, which bathed the stage in glows both natural and appropriately magical.

One of the production’s strokes of genius was the team of mice that shadow Cenerentola throughout the opera: her gentle caressing of them was surprisingly touching, and their expertly-enacted choreography, devised by Xevi Dorca, was fabulously witty. The team of dancers beneath the mice’s cleverly-crafted masks—Nancy Flores-Tirado, Damon Foster, A. Maverick Lemons, Monica Malanga, Alvaro Palau, and Christopher Pennix—were lithe, winningly charming, and utterly believable as mice. They provided so many small details that enriched the production immeasurably: unobtrusively moving props, quietly watching the action, lovingly comforting the downtrodden Angelina, and, most critically, using a dose of mouse ingenuity to ensure that the Prince’s carriage wrecked conveniently in the vicinity of Villa Don Magnifico. In the interactions of cast members both human and murine, Joan Font’s and Tanya Kane-Parry’s direction was consistently shrewd. Tellingly, not one member of the cast ever looked uncomfortable with any component of the staging. The focus was on ordinary people finding themselves in near-impossible situations, having a few laughs at their own expense, sorting things out as best as they could, and singing great music all the while—in short, on performing Rossini’s Cenerentola, not some wrongheaded reimagining of it.

IN PERFORMANCE: (from left to right) Mezzo-soprano DEBORAH NANSTEEL as Tisbe, bass-baritone VALERIANO LANCHAS as Don Magnifico, and soprano JACQUELINE ECHOLS as Clorinda in Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA at Washington National Opera, 17 May 2015 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Una famiglia insolita: (from left to right) Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel as Tisbe, bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas as Don Magnifico, and soprano Jacqueline Echols as Clorinda in Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola at Washington National Opera, 17 May 2015 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

La Cenerentola is a score that I have known and loved for nearly twenty years. I have attended performances by opera companies large and small, and each performance has educated me about previously-unnoticed aspects of Rossini’s effervescent music. Appreciating this music as much as I do, I can offer no greater praise for Maestra Scappucci’s pacing of the performance than stating that she conducted the opera precisely as I would do if an opera company were foolish enough to trust me with a baton. Refreshingly, she was never afraid of applying the brakes when the musical and emotional atmosphere warranted doing so. The madcap Rossini prestissimi were there, to be sure, but neither the music nor those performing it were rushed. Also proving an imaginative maestra di cembalo in Luca Agolini’s secco recitatives, she adopted tempi that enabled a rare level of appreciation for the bel in Rossini’s bel canto. Under Maestra Scappucci’s baton, the WNO Orchestra and Chorus performed with the vivacity and unfettered musicality that the score demands. The orchestra delivered an especially spirited account of the Sinfonia in which, as throughout the performance, the conductor heightened the emotional ‘messages’ of the music by observing Rossini’s markings and employing great flexibility in resolving cadences. The kinship among La Cenerentola and the two great ‘last stands’ of Italian comic opera, Verdi’s Falstaff and Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, was unusually apparent. Rossini is not renowned for his aptitude as an orchestrator, but his writing for woodwinds in Cenerentola is often quite inventive: in this performance, the WNO woodwind players left no felicity of their parts undisclosed. The gentlemen of the chorus sang robustly, their performances of ‘O figlie amabili di Don Magnifico, Ramiro il principe or or verrà’ and ‘Scegli la sposa, affrettati’ in Act One bustling with enthusiasm and of ‘Della Fortuna instabile’ in Act Two filling the auditorium with finely-blended sound.

As Cenerentola’s delectably nasty stepsisters, mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel and soprano Jacqueline Echols were ideally paired vocally, comically, and temperamentally. Making enormous pink and yellow wigs look like the pinnacle of swanky ‘mean girl’ style, the ladies pranced and pouted like a spoiled Dorabella and Fiordiligi. [Note to WNO and other companies: a production of Così fan tutte with this twosome would be smashing!] An alumna of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, Ms. Nansteel exhibited such naturalness in Tisbe’s tantrums that she hardly seemed to be acting at all, and the Nationals would do well to invite her to spring training next season: her aim when hurling slippers at poor Cenerentola was deadly. Ms. Echols, an unforgettable Violetta in North Carolina Opera’s La traviata earlier in the present season, equaled Ms. Nansteel’s every gesture and soared in Clorinda’s high lines in ensembles, displaying firm, attractive top As, B♭s, and Bs. The spiteful sisters were riotous in the Act Two Sextet, and their eventual resignation to Alidoro’s suggested reconciliation with Cenerentola, Tisbe coming to her senses rather more readily than Clorinda, was managed humorously but with real feeling. Though it is the work of Angelini rather than Rossini, it was unfortunate that Clorinda’s aria was suppressed: Ms. Echols deserved the additional opportunity to shine.

Winner of the 2007 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, Chinese bass Shenyang was an imposing Alidoro who vocal power matched his towering physique. WNO’s production preferred the aria that Rossini composed for Alidoro in the 1820 revival of Cenerentola, ‘La, del ciel nell’arcano profondo,’ and the performance that it received from this talented young bass fully justified its inclusion. His dark tones were occasionally lost in ensembles, but he was an implacable voice for integrity whose expertly-sung utterances could not be ignored.

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass-baritone VALERIANO LANCHAS as Don Magnifico in Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA at Washington National Opera, 17 May 2015 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Il padre riluttante: Bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas as Don Magnifico (center) in Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola at Washington National Opera, 17 May 2015 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera]

Colombian bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas, also a veteran of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program, portrayed Don Magnifico as a foolish man but not a fool. Possessing a large sound, a lively stage presence, and an easy command of the stage, total mastery of Rossini's idiom is not yet a weapon in his impressive operatic arsenal. In Act One, Mr. Lanchas gave an account of Magnifico's cavatina ‘Miei rampolli femminini’ that was dramatically captivating but musically rough around the edges. He sang ‘Mi sognai fra il fosco e il chiaro’ and ‘Per pietà quelle ciglia abbassate’ excitingly, and he combined with Dandini with spitfire exasperation in their duet in Act Two. Mr. Lanchas was at his best in ensembles, in which he dedicated himself to the task of maintaining Magnifico’s central part in the drama. Even when his bravura technique was slightly overwhelmed by Rossini’s patter writing, Mr. Lanchas created a larger-than-life character, and it was a legitimate pleasure to hear such a big, bold voice in Magnifico’s music.

​A native of Bologna, bass-baritone Simone Alberghini is to the Rossinian manner born, and his impersonation of the wily Dandini was the work of both a very capable singer and a comedic mastermind. The dryness of his timbre lent his characterization an unexpected sophistication that in no way inhibited his instincts for comedy.​ Seizing his opportunity to experience the master’s perspective on giving and taking orders, this Dandini let no chance to exercise his temporary authority pass him by. Many singers might have overplayed Dandini’s dropping his hat so that the disguised Prince must retrieve it, but Mr. Alberghini made it funnier each time he did it. His singing of the cavatina ‘Come un’ape ne’ giorni d’aprile va volando leggiera e scherzosa’ was more forced than forceful, the top Fs secure and ringing if tightly-muscled, but he rousingly met every demand of the duet with Ramiro, ‘Zitto, zitto; piano, piano.’ The Act Two duet with Magnifico, ‘Un segreto d’importanza,’ was all the more effective for being understated: when the scene is written so perfectly, there is no need for a plethora of slapstick shenanigans. The most treasurable moment of the afternoon was when, after a bit of particularly funny stage business between Dandini and Magnifico, a small child’s laughter rang out. Dandini’s next lines were delivered through the singer’s own laughter. It was the kind of moment that cannot be rehearsed and makes an enjoyable performance an unforgettable one for artists and audience. Mr. Alberghini dispatched the mercurial writing of ‘Questo è un nodo avviluppato’ in the Sextet with astounding technical acumen, and he contributed a high level of accuracy in florid music to all ensembles. So impressive was his dancing that it seemed that he was preparing for the Royal Ballet’s visit to Kennedy Center in June. Mr. Alberghini sang impressively throughout the performance, but the hallmark of this Dandini was unalloyed, good-natured fun.

IN PERFORMANCE: Bass-baritone SIMONE ALBERGHINI as Dandini (left, in disguise as the Prince) and tenor DAVID PORTILLO as Ramiro (right) in Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA at Washington National Opera, 17 May 2015 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]Il servo ed il principe: Bass-baritone Simone Alberghini as Dandini (left, in disguise as the Prince) and tenor David Portillo as Ramiro (right) in Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola at Washington National Opera, 17 May 2015 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

With recent triumphs as Tamino in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte with Houston Grand Opera, Tonio in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment with Arizona Opera, and Tebaldo in Bellini’s I Capuleti ed i Montecchi with Washington Concert Opera to his credit, Texas-born tenor David Portillo brought to his portrayal of Ramiro in WNO’sCenerentola an estimable bel canto curriculum vitae that belies his youth. Singing his first part with WNO, he dominated the stage with his mischievously handsome presence, disarming smile, and natural flair for Rossinian comedy.​ Aside from his Puckish characterization, the principal glory of Mr. Portillo’s Ramiro was the elegance with which his ravishing tenore di grazia rendered Rossini’s vocal lines. From the first notes of ‘Tutto è deserto,’ his singing combined near-perfect diction with undeviating assurance in coloratura passages. In the duet with Angelina, ‘Una soave non so che in quegl’occhi scintillò,’ his wide-eyed wonder was outstanding, and the cute detail of the Prince chivalrously offering to sweep up the remnants of the cup broken by Cenerentola but having no clue about what to do with a broom was endearingly managed. Mr. Portillo was a source of poised, skillfully-projected singing in the sensational Quintet and the duet with Dandini, in which he and Mr. Alberghini interacted with the conspiratorial conviviality of Conte d’Almaviva—in which rôle Mr. Portillo will be heard at the Metropolitan Opera in December and January, reuniting with Mr. Lanchas, who will make his MET début as Bartolo—and Figaro in Il barbiere di Siviglia. In Act Two, the four top Cs in Ramiro’s aria ‘Sì, ritrovarla io giuro’ were launched effortlessly, and the tonal sheen of Mr. Portillo’s singing of the Andantino section of the aria, ‘Pegno adorato e caro,’ was arresting. His performance of the cabaletta ‘Dolce speranza, freddo timore dentro al mio core stanno a pugnar’ was galvanizing, the pair of written top Cs supplemented by an interpolated third, as well as a breathtaking top D. Like Elvino in Bellini’s La sonnambula, Ramiro has little to do after he and his true love are reunited, but Mr. Portillo’s amorously benevolent part in the drama continued to the opera’s final chord: his new bride seemed almost to float upon his affectionate gaze.

IN PERFORMANCE: Tenor DAVID PORTILLO (left) as Ramiro and mezzo-soprano TARA ERRAUGHT in the title rôle (right) of Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA at Washington National Opera, 17 May 2015 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]I primi sorrisi d’amore: Tenor David Portillo (left) as Ramiro and mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught in the title rôle (right) of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola at Washington National Opera, 17 May 2015 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © by Washington National Opera]

The much-discussed interpreter of the title rôle in Glyndebourne’s 2014 production of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught also made her WNO début, as well as her American staged opera début, in the current production of La Cenerentola. Sadly, the principal focus of last summer’s furor in the British press was not this lovely young singer’s voice, which is a well-controlled, amber-hued instrument of excellent quality, but the kind of inexcusable stupidity that makes not only opera itself but also those who love it seem shallow, outmoded, and no longer significant. WNO's Cenerentola was an ideal setting for​ the unpretentiously beautiful Ms. Erraught to display her capabilities as a singer and an actress, and what a display she gave! She looked as pretty as a fairytale princess even in Cenerentola’s ‘rags’—which, in truth, were rather smarter than in many productions of the opera—and acted the rôle with simplicity and sweetly feminine grace, ashamed at first of her burgeoning feelings of love for the disguised Prince and gradually blossoming into a bonafide romantic leading lady. Especially in Act One, in which Ms. Erraught phrased the delicate ‘Una volta c’era un re’ with excellent breath control, the voice was not ideally projected and was sometimes difficult to hear, especially in phrases in the lower octave of the part. In the duet with Ramiro, ‘Io vorrei saper perchè il mio cor mi palpitò,’ she sang dulcetly, and the expansiveness of her account of ‘Una grazia, un certo incanto par che brilli su quel viso’ was absorbing. The entreaties of ‘Signor, una parola’ were harrowing, and the seeming spontaneity of her enunciation of ‘Ah! sempre fra la cenere, sempre dovrò restar?’ deepened the poignancy of the scene. Ms. Erraught conveyed all of Cenerentola’s hope for a happier future in her sun-drenched singing of 'Sprezzo quei don che versa fortuna capricciosa,' and she made Cenerentola’s giving Ramiro the bracelet and charging him with searching for its mate a task no man could refuse. Every reappearance of 'Una volta c'era un re' grew lovelier, and the special intensity of the singer’s statement of 'Sposa...Signore, perdona la tenera incertezza che mi confonde ancor,' bolstered by Maestra Scappucci’s genial support, magnified the character’s altruistic spirit. Ms. Erraught approached the opera’s final scene as a musical and sentimental tour de force, singing the andante 'Nacqui all'affanno e al pianto’ with unaffected silkiness that she carried from the bottom of the range to her top B. Fittingly, Ms. Erraught’s finest singing of the afternoon was done in the rondò finale, 'Non più mesta accanto al fuoco starò sola a gorgheggiar.’ Here, the voice soared into the auditorium, the coloratura dispatched with complete adroitness, her trill invigorating, and her top Bs lustrous and secure. Her confidence flourished as the performance progressed, and she was ultimately a Cenerentola who proved equally adept at expressing the rôle’s joviality and profundity.

La Cenerentola is not a complicated opera, but far too many productions complicate it unnecessarily. It is unlikely that Rossini and his librettist, Jacopo Ferretti, ever intended for audiences who attend performances of Cenerentola to embrace the opera as anything but entertainment: perhaps they never envisioned that their opera would continue to be performed two centuries after its première. By approaching the opera with both creativity and fidelity to Rossini’s score, Washington National Opera affirmed that La Cenerentola deserves its place in the international repertory in the Twenty-First Century. Indeed, furnishing surroundings for singing such as that done by Tara Erraught and David Portillo on Sunday afternoon is reason enough to perform La Cenerentola anytime, anywhere.

IN PERFORMANCE: Mezzo-soprano TARA ERRAUGHT in the title rôle of Gioachino Rossini's LA CENERENTOLA at Washington National Opera, 17 May 2015 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera]Una donna ed il suo topo: Mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught in the title rôle of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola at Washington National Opera, 17 March 2015 [Photo by Scott Suchman, © Washington National Opera]