GIOACHINO ROSSINI (1792 – 1868): La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo—Sandra Piques Eddy (Angelina), Andrew Owens (Don Ramiro), Sidney Outlaw (Dandini), Donald Hartmann (Don Magnifico), Timothy Jones (Alidoro), Julie Celona-VanGorden (Clorinda), Clara O’Brien (Tisbe); Chorus and Orchestra of Greensboro Opera; Willie Anthony Waters, conductor [David Holley, Director; James Bumgardner, Chorus Master; Anna Geer, Stage Manager; Costumes by Malabar; Wigs by Trent Pcenicni; Make-up by Deborah Bell; Sets by Tony Fanning; Lighting Designs by Jeff Neubauer; Greensboro Opera, Aycock Auditorium, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, North Carolina; Friday, 28 August 2015]
For reasons that often defy easy explication, some stories capture the imaginations of legions of people with little more in common than shared humanity. By the time that Giambattista Basile and Charles Perrault gave first Italy and then France written versions of her saga in the Seventeenth Century, poor Cinderella's strife had likely already been winning hearts for generations. Responding to the philosophical sensibilities of his time, Perrault made an irrepressible self-reliance and a worldliness born of both experience and intellectual curiosity central to the character of his Cendrillon. A bit more than a century later, when Jacopo Ferretti wrote his libretto for Gioachino Rossini's 1817 opera La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo, the long-suffering girl's resilience remained the pillar upon which her tribulations and triumphs were balanced. Rossini almost surely had a softer heart than he was inclined to show to his contemporaries, but there is no doubt that he lavished his every sigh and adoring smile on his Cenerentola. Clichéd damsels in distress are frequent guests on the operatic stage and are often forgettable, but Rossini’s Angelina possesses the potential to transcend the limitations of a droopy-eyed maiden whose troubles are sorted out in pretty tunes. Geltrude Righetti-Giorgi, Rossini’s first Angelina, also created the rôle of Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1816, but little contemporary comment on her Cinderella survives. Was it some euphonious quality of her Rosina shape Rossini’s depiction of Cenerentola? What did Rossini see in Cenerentola that inspired him to make his operatic incarnation of her so engaging? The musical Poet of Pesaro left few accounts of his compositional process, but the emotional atmosphere of La Cenerentola speaks for itself. If presented with a modicum of sincerity tempering the comedy, La Cenerentola can be one of those stories that refuse to relinquish their places in audiences’ memories. Greensboro Opera’s La Cenerentola was just such a presentation: drawing from Rossini’s music every laugh, wink, and furtive plaint with which the composer infused his incandescently bittersweet score, this production was like a favorite bedtime story read by a cherished voice that forever sounds in the heart.
Those who debate the ways in which opera should and should not be staged in order to ensure its survival would do well to spend less time spouting rhetoric and dedicate themselves to observing what Artistic Director David Holley is achieving at Greensboro Opera, both administratively and directorially. It seems abundantly logical that a fine singer should have an intuitive talent for directing opera, but this logic is trusted by far too few opera companies, especially those with the greatest resources to expend—and, in many cases, waste—on extravagant spectacles devised by directors with little [or no] knowledge of opera. Without in any way lessening appreciation for Holley's efforts, it is disheartening to be compelled to assert that focusing on faithfully executing a composer's score and fostering performances that are enjoyable for artists and audiences—the realm in which Holley is most successful—should be the cornerstones of any opera company's endeavors. At the helm of Greensboro Opera's Cenerentola, Holley assembled a team of artists and artisans whose common goal was making Rossini's music the centerpiece of a thriving, thrilling theatrical experience. Rossini’s two acts were divided into three: taking an interval before Angelina’s arrival at the ball was sensible, but breaking after Dandini’s and Magnifico’s duet impacted the opera’s dramatic flow. [For this review, musical numbers are referenced as they appear in Rossini’s original two-act scheme.] Holley’s directorial judgment is clearly influenced by his own acclaimed work as a tenor, but the intelligence of his staging of Cenerentola was notable by any standard. There was an obvious reason for every action and reaction: the singers were not aimlessly ambling about the stage but were watching, listening, and responding to one another. The comedy was broad but not nonsensical, owing both to Holley's concept, in which the scene at the prince’s ball gave new meaning to playing with one’s food, and to the cast's uniformly skillful acting. Described by Rossini as a dramma giocoso, a designation shared with Mozart's Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, Cenerentola is neither a farce nor an opera seria disguised in buffa garb. In this performance, Holley's direction enabled the Bontà in trionfo specification of the opera's full title to be enthusiastically fulfilled without indulging in didactic moralizing.
‘Kleider machen Leute,’ wrote Gottfried Keller, and Malabar’s sumptuous costumes lent the singers in Greensboro Opera's production credence in every social station they were meant to portray. Characters were sufficiently contrasted to make them immediately discernible even when identities were being swapped, and the Eighteenth-Century ‘shabby chic' of the residents of Casa Magnifico was achieved without seeming to interfere with the task of singing. Angelina's exodus from rags to riches was limned with insightful use of color, the earthy blues of her peasant frock giving way first to her robin's-egg dress at the ball and finally to the snowy brilliance of the bow-bedecked gown in which she became the princess consort. Trent Pcenicni’s wigs and Deborah Bell’s make-up were delectable: with Clorinda and Tisbe paragons of snobbery, Don Magnifico a fop straight out of a Hogarth engraving, Angelina a vision of glamor even in tatters, and Don Ramiro and his court evocative of storybook chivalry, Rossini’s comedy came gloriously to life. The delicate floral motifs of Tony Fanning’s lovely scenery were complemented by Jeff Neubauer’s flattering lighting. Everything on stage looked as one expects La Cenerentola to look, which is to say that Greensboro Opera offered a physical setting for the production that honored Rossini’s and Ferretti’s brainchild.
So familiar are their melodies and infectiously high-spirited are their celebrated crescendi that Rossini's operas often seem to virtually conduct themselves. Still, more Rossini performances than anyone might care to acknowledge are mutated into musical travesties by poor conducting. Miami native Willie Anthony Waters was this Cenerentola's ace in the hole. Artistic Director and principal conductor of Connecticut Opera, a deservedly-lamented casualty of the recent Great Recession, and a much-admired pedagogue whose work with Martina Arroyo's Prelude to Performance program is incalculably significant in the quest for the survival of opera in the United States, Waters presided over the musical components of this performance with the complementary humor and seriousness of a man encountering a beloved old friend known to make mischief if left unsupervised. From the first bars of the opera's Overture, borrowed pursuant to Rossini's usual custom from the earlier La gazzetta, Waters exhibited an unmistakable affinity for extracting the bel canto elegance from even the zaniest passages. Rossini's score was in expert hands under Waters's baton, his clever management of Rossini's trademark crescendi distinguishing his work as that of a natural Rossinian. The personnel of the Greensboro Opera Chorus and Orchestra, the former ensemble trained by Chorus Master James Bumgardner, benefited from the conductor's no-nonsense style: his firm beat and masterful cuing both indicated what he wanted and provided the musicians and singers with tools needed to meet his goals. Instances of clarity and precision of ensemble falling victim to opening-night jitters were laudably few aside from some squeaks and squawks from the woodwinds at the start of the Overture and a handful of passages in which coordination between stage and pit was imperiled, and choristers and instrumentalists found in Waters an ally and a catalyst. The gentlemen of the chorus made an especially robust showing. In the Vivace of the ensemble that ends the composer’s Act One, Rossini's madcap energy electrified the theatre without blowing any fuses. The Temporale in Rossini’s Act Two [Greensboro Opera’s Act Three] was wonderfully animated, but the pinnacle of Waters's performance was the Maestoso in the ingenious Sextet. Waters here maneuvered the intertwining voices with the certain grasp of an accomplished weaver. Witnessing his wholly organic pacing of La Cenerentola made Waters's absence from the podia of a number of America's best opera companies all the more unconscionable: when the products of a musical brand as reliably top-quality as Waters's conducting are not being made available to consumers, who is minding the store?
Sorelle [not so] simpatiche: Soprano Julie Celona-VanGorden as Clorinda (left) and mezzo-soprano Clara O’Brien as Tisbe (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]
From her first 'No, no, no, no: non v'è, non v'è chi trinciar sappia così leggerissimo sciassè,' in Act One, lyric coloratura soprano Julie Celona-VanGorden was a Clorinda of crystalline high notes and even higher spirits. A member of the faculty of Elon University's School of Music, she filled the top line in ensembles with sparkling tone that retained its slightly tart presence up to her bell-like top B. She delivered the sustained top As in Rossini’s Act One finale with effortless aplomb. Clorinda's aria 'Sventurata! sventurata, sventurata! mi credea comandar seduta in trono' is the work of Luca Agolini, to whom Rossini entrusted composition of the secco recitatives in Cenerentola and is admittedly not even first-rate Agolini, but the fluency of Celona-VanGorden's singing made its omission regrettable. Her partner in the crime of tormenting Angelina was sung and acted to perfection by mezzo-soprano Clara O'Brien, an esteemed professor on the UNCG Voice faculty and, in the context of this performance, as satisfying a Tisbe as one might hope to hear. Answering Clorinda's opening tirade with her own 'Sì, sì, sì, sì: va bene lì,' O'Brien was the model of impeccably-sung sisterly contradiction. Like Celona-VanGorden, she contributed attractive, ably-projected tone to ensembles and created a character whose moments of spite were products of insecurity—lovable quirks rather than aspects of an unpleasant nature. Both Celona-VanGorden and O’Brien embraced the jocose spirit of the production without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. Most importantly, they were wholly at ease with Rossini’s music.
Alla testa della classe: Bass-baritone Timothy Jones as Alidoro (center) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]
Bass-baritone Timothy Jones created an Alidoro that any hero and heroine with obstacles complicating their courtship would want in their corner. Epitomizing what Shakespeare dubbed the 'lean and hungry look' in Alidoro’s first appearance as a beggar in Act One, Jones exuded the tranquil dignity of a man on a righteous mission. His singing of 'Un tantin di carità' suggested the rattle of bones starved of their flesh. When Alidoro returned in his guise as Ramiro's moral and philosophical compass, Jones declaimed 'Qui nel mio codice delle zitelle, con Don Magnifico stan tre sorelle' with the piercing authority of Verdi's Grand Inquisitor. Laudably, Rossini's 1821 aria 'Là del ciel nell'arcano profondo' was preferred to the aria by Agolini that was sung in the 1817 première, and the performance that it received from Jones was a wonder of expansive phrasing and even tone. Jones's sharp diction enlivened recitatives, and he presided over the scenes in which he appeared like a puppet maker lovingly manipulating his beloved creations, all while singing splendidly. A few pitches in recitatives were suspect, especially in his exchange with Clorinda and Tisbe just before the opera's finale, but his performance as a whole was suave and stylish.
Padre e figlia: Bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Don Magnifico (left) and mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Angelina (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]
Is it possible that his students in UNCG's School of Music, Theatre, and Dance are fully cognizant of the treasure that they have before them in bass-baritone Donald Hartmann's tutelage? It is one thing to lecture effectively on fine points of operatic interpretation, but this performer's characterizations are invaluable lessons in the art of combining unflappable musicality with an adroitness upon the stage that can be observed and thus honed but only very rarely taught to those who do not possess it. Hartmann is a consummate charmer who can make slapstick comedy seem like the very definition of sophistication, and Greensboro Opera's Cenerentola gave him opportunities to impress with both buffoonery and heartwarming sincerity. Hartmann’s singing of Magnifico’s aria 'Miei rampolli, miei rampolli femminini' fizzed with vocal wizardry and uproarious bafflement. The singer’s comic timing, reminiscent of Red Skelton at his best, was a marvel throughout the performance, but there was a frivolity that seemed to surprise even him in his assertion that the third daughter attributed to Don Magnifico in the prince's registry was dead. As with Norina's browbeating of Donizetti's Don Pasquale, this can be a sudden, disquieting indication of the game having been carried too far, but the moment in this performance was primarily an egregious affront to Angelina’s dignity. In the subsequent quintet, Hartmann skipped through 'Nel volto estatico di questo e quello si legge il vortice del lor cervello' with the cluelessness of a man with just enough gumption about him to be slightly dangerous. Porky Pig would have been proud of Hartmann's sputtering 'Signor...Altezza, in tavola, signor...Altezza, in tavola...che...co...chi...sì' in what Rossini positioned as the Act One finale: one almost expected him to reappear after the number’s close to say, ‘That's all, folks!' Hartmann voiced Magnifico’s aria 'Sia qualunque delle figlie' with aptly absurd pomposity conveyed by his raven-hued timbre. Propelled by Hartmann’s singing of 'Senza batter, senza battere le ciglia,' the duet with Dandini was a grand slam in a game filled with home runs. The softening of Magnifico’s demeanor in the opera’s final scene was in this performance less a begrudging surrender than a return to the sort of man he perhaps was before loss of fortune and life partner metamorphosed him into an embittered father struggling with feisty daughters. Hartmann phrased 'Alfine, alfine sul bracciale ecco, ecco il pallon tornò' with breathless excitement, but his jocularity faded as rapidly as his acknowledged daughters’ prospects for making princely matches. His ultimate acceptance of Angelina as his daughter and savior was poignant. Hartmann is the kind of performer who immeasurably enriches the offerings of regional opera companies, and he confirmed anew with his Don Magnifico for Greensboro Opera that his flair for comedic bel canto is major-league-worthy.
Il Principe ed il suo valletto: Baritone Sidney Outlaw as Dandini (left) and tenor Andrew Owens as Don Ramiro (right) in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]
With a voice like that of baritone Sidney Outlaw having emerged from its environs, it is hardly surprising that the town of Brevard should have become a Mecca of musical life in North Carolina and the Southeastern United States. Having already amassed a repertory spanning three centuries of opera’s history, Outlaw has excelled in parts as diverse as Ariodate in Händel’s Serse, Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Rambo in John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer and the title rôle in Anthony Davis’s X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X. His Dandini for Greensboro Opera revealed that his abilities include plucky instincts for Rossinian comedy. Of course, the best histrionic intentions are of little importance if the voice is not equally refined, but Outlaw’s first notes withered this concern like Dandini’s deflated pride. Singing the cavatina 'Come un' ape ne' giorni d'aprille va volando leggiera e scherzosa' with unctuous self-approbation, discharging top Fs like firecrackers, the baritone sauntered through Act One like a great sprinter entering the home stretch without a competitor in sight. It is doubtful that any gentleman upon the operatic stage has ever sported rouge and metallic eye shadow more dashingly. Outlaw uttered ‘Sotto voce a mezzo tono’ as though plotting to infiltrate Fort Knox and then unleashed a torrent of spot-on coloratura in the duet with Ramiro. He and Hartmann squabbled and swashbuckled through Dandini’s and Magnifico’s Act Two duet [the Act Two finale in Greensboro Opera’s production], 'Un segreto d'importanza,' Outlaw matching his colleague roulade for flawlessly-executed roulade. Outlaw’s blazing coloratura in the Sextet brilliantly imparted Dandini’s rôle as the fulcrum upon which the drama pivots. Perhaps the greatest flaw of Ferretti’s libretto and Rossini’s score is the manner in which, like Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma, Dandini’s part in the drama seems unresolved. He has nothing to do in the opera’s final scene but stand by, looking on, but Outlaw managed to make even his character’s inactivity interesting. Musically and dramatically, Outlaw’s Dandini was a sidekick who scored many of the performance’s most spectacular runs.
Do di petto: Tenor Andrew Owens as Don Ramiro in Greensboro Opera's production of Gioachino Rossini's La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]
Looking athletic enough to have hoisted the broken-down carriage that serendipitously landed him on Don Magnifico's doorstep onto his shoulders, tenor Andrew Owens was a debonair Don Ramiro who in affairs of the heart was disinclined to accept anything but unconditional victory. A recent recipient of an Encouragement Award in the prestigious George London Foundation Competition and winner of the Zarzuela Prize in the 2015 Francisco Viñas International Singing Competition, Owens is a young artist whose presence on the international circuit is rising faster than the tessitura of Ramiro's music. Unlike some of his colleagues in today's parade of pretty-boy tenors, Owens can deliver the vocal goods, and he delivered capitally in Greensboro's Cenerentola. The quality of the voice was immediately apparent as he sang 'Tutto è deserto,' the flourish to top A♯ managed with boyish nonchalance. The tenor's piano singing upon encountering Angelina was often exquisite and projected so that even his quietest whisper of adoration was audible. Owens's 'Una soave non so che in quegl'occhi scintillò' was a lovesick sigh, and his wide-eyed ebullience and satiny timbre made the duet with Angelina a profound joy, the coloratura in unison with his future bride inspiring this Ramiro to dulcet rhapsodizing. In the duet with Dandini, Owens and Outlaw were like a patter-spouting Laurel and Hardy, Owens voicing 'Zitto, zitto: piano, piano' as though the words were occurring to him on the spot. In the incredibly demanding scene in which Ramiro resolves to locate the unknown girl who has stolen his heart, he articulated 'Ah! questa bella incognita, con quella somiglianza all'infelice' with aristocratic grace before launching 'Sì, ritrovarla io giuro' with stirring energy, his negotiations of the top Cs almost ridiculously easy. His voice glowed in the Andantino 'Pegno adorato e caro che mi lusinghi almeno,' but it was his account of 'Dolce speranza, freddo timore dentro al mio core stanno a pugnar' that galvanized. In addition to knocking the two further written top Cs out of the park, he not only added a third at the aria's close but punctuated the passage between stanzas of the aria with a shining top D, as well. Reunited with Angelina and defending her from her stepfather's abuse, this Ramiro had the vocal muscle to make good on his promises of justice for his betrothed's persecutors. After all, when one swears to have vengeance with an upper register as exhilarating as Owens's, who could doubt the sincerity of the sentiment? Caressing his melodic lines and proudly presenting his new bride to his friends and courtiers, he was the rare Ramiro who was noticed in the opera's final scene. Throughout the performance, Owens was a prince who looked, behaved, and sounded like one.
La bontà in trionfo: Tenor Andrew Owens as Don Ramiro (left) and mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Angelina (right) in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, August 2015 [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]
By turns dainty, demure, and delightfully indomitable, the Angelina of Sandra Piques Eddy was a grab-the-bull-by-the-horns lass who was not content to languish in squalid obscurity in tranquil anticipation of her prince. Sure, her 'Una volta c'era un re' was touchingly despondent, but this was no Annie-esque, 'the sun will come out tomorrow' Cenerentola: this was a Mama Cass-style, 'make your own kind of music' dynamo with dreams that she meant to fulfill. Offering alms to Alidoro masquerading as a beggar while fending off her stepsisters’ verbal barbs, this Angelina’s sympathetic heart was obvious from the start. When Ramiro unexpectedly appeared in her stepfather’s crumbling house, Eddy figuratively dug her heels into 'Io vorrei saper perchè il mio cor mi palpitò,' unmistakably portraying Angelina’s sudden recognition of her infatuation with the disguised Ramiro as love and plummeting blissfully to her low B in the subsequent duet with Ramiro. Her shy reluctance to embrace her newly-found swain was heartwarming, the singer wholly embodying the fiery young girl whose deplorable but stable world has been disquieted by unfamiliar feelings. Phrasing 'Sprezzo quei don che versa fortuna capricciosa' in Rossini’s Act One finale with panache, she traded top B♭s with Ramiro in passagework as though it were as natural as breathing, and she and all of her colleagues joined in the food fight with childlike glee. The reprise of 'Una volta c'era un re' was tinged with expectancy of future happiness, and Eddy’s face beamed more brightly than the sparkle of her bejeweled bracelet when her prince found her. In the opera’s final scene, she voiced the Andantino 'Ah! signor, s'è ver che in petto qualche amor per me serbate' movingly, and she injected the Andante 'Nacqui all'affanno e al pianto' with vocal and charismatic warmth. In the celebrated rondò, 'Non più mesta accanto al fuoco starò sola a gorgheggiar, no,' Eddy’s commendable efforts at trills fell short, and her top B was uncomfortable. Her ornaments, though basically stylish, seemed formulated principally to simplify rather than to enhance Rossini’s bravura writing. Still, her performance was invigorating. As both a singer and an actress, Eddy fully deserved the tiara—borne, in a precious detail of Holley’s staging, by the mezzo-soprano’s daughter Beatrice—with which she was crowned.
La Cenerentola is not a complicated opera. Almost without exception, efforts to make La Cenerentola an ostensibly pertinent piece in the modern sense have resulted in productions that rob the opera of the simple pleasures with which Rossini suffused it. The ingredients required to prepare an effective Cenerentola are sympathetic conducting, virtuosic singing, and a staging in which these elements are allowed to fuse uninhibitedly. Greensboro Opera’s production of La Cenerentola provided all of these facets in abundance, and the resulting performance shone with the twinkle of Rossini’s genius, illuminated by a septet of outstanding American voices and one of America’s most gifted conductors.
In un nodo di perplessità: Mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy as Angelina (left), tenor Andrew Owens as Don Ramiro (center), and baritone Sidney Outlaw as Dandini (right), with (from left to right) soprano Julie Celona-VanGorden as Clorinda, mezzo-soprano Clara O’Brien as Tisbe, and bass-baritone Donald Hartmann as Don Magnifico visible at the rear, in Greensboro Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola [Photo © by Artisan Images/David Wilson, used with permission]