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Posts Tagged ‘Rossini’s La Cenerentola’

Rossini’s La Cenerentola is an example of what makes Italian art great: its unique blend of funny and touching. I would say that in these days when the news are so depressing all over the world, going to the theatre to see the triumph of goodness can be reassuring. In his new production for the Opéra de Paris, director Guillaume Gallienne, however, proves to be skeptical. In his view, happy ending is only for those short of memory. Here, Cinderella is serious about her intent to make herself nobler by her good actions when she forgives her stepfather and sisters, but she cannot forget. In her new found splendor, she thinks only of her sad days of abuse, poverty and unhappiness. Although this is an intelligent view of the story by a director new to the world of opera, Mr. Gallienne makes the #1 mistake of directors not acquainted with the genre: the idea that it should be rescued from its obsoleteness and stuffiness. This invariably involves keenness on naturalistic action, a decision challenged by music’s own tempo, especially in operas the numbers of which are composed in forms that involve recapitulation. Directors of the “rescuing” type invariably resort to extras with parallel subplots in order to supply some interest while the helpless tenor and soprano are singing their boring arias. When they can indeed act, keeping them overbusy is inevitable. As much as this approach requires lots of imagination and cleverness, in the end it only alienates an audience who is already used to the peculiarities of operatic staging and ready to savor everything it has to offer if given enough time to do that.

I am not sure if I like the visual aspect of the prodiction. The idea of showing this as a Neapolitan comedy is apt, and the idea of sun-soaked decayed palaces fits the plot. But there are problem is: the director does not seem to know what the Neapolitan attitude is. The singer who succeeds in portraying that is, predictably, the Italian buffo. Also, the sets are frankly ugly and adapt themselves awkwardly to the dramatic action, especially in the scenes in the Prince’s palace. Costumes are also uncharacteristic and not particularly beautiful either.

In terms of theatre, what makes this staging special is the acting of French mezzo soprano Marianne Crebassa. She seems to have gone deeper than the director in Cenerentola’s predicament, by the way she established not only her scenic persona but as she sings it too. Her whole performance glows with a rather dark light. She has payed close attention to the text and portrays a girl traumatized by years of ill-treatment and neglect. When the Prince asks who she is and she answers she is nobody, she means it. When her stepfather says she is dead and she says to herself “They are speaking of me”, she does sound as she had already died. When she implores to go to the ball, it is a cry for help. It’s either seeing a light in the end of the tunnel or succumbing. The trauma informs even the happy scenes – her entrance in the Prince’s party is everything but flashy. The glamor has no effect on her, she has been in the dark for so long that she has become blind to it. She is there only to grab onto her last hope – the valet to the prince who had SEEN her although she was covered in ashes. Ms. Crebassa’s singing was similarly self-contained and introvert. She dealt with the coloratura in absolutely adept but unspectacular way. It had nothing of the narcissism usually associated to technical display. She sang her runs as a pianist playing a nocturne by Chopin, purely as an expressive tool. To say the truth, the part is a bit in the end of her possibilities, especially in what regards climactic high notes, but she even used that for her interpretation purposes. This Cenerentola did not explode in bright high notes, but rather relished her warm, fruity and disarming low register. I have to confess that having sung Olga Borodina in this part made me a bit immune to the charms of Mozartian or Handelian mezzos lost in this repertoire, but Ms. Crebassa made something so unique here that she will be stored in my experience as sui generis.

Lawrence Brownlee’s acting abilities are not up to Marianne Crebassa’s level. Maybe that is why the director made him use a splint on one leg as a way of portraying some sort of fragility. It might have worked, for I found him less self-conscious in his leading man routine than elsewhere.  His tenor a bit less dulcet than last time I heard him, but the trade-off came in the shape of a slightly more heroic quality to his singing. As expected, he does not even flinch before the coloratura and the very high notes. In terms of singing, however, it is Florian Sempey who deserves pride of place. His is a naturally big voice, warm and firm and unproblematic. Even if he indulges in ga-ga-ga coloratura à la Christina Deutekom, how many Dandinis actually tackle their divisions a tempo as he has done? Most of all, he is a stage animal, ready to give his 100%, as if he felt energized by the audience’s appreciation. Bravo. He partnered veteran buffo Alessandro Corbelli to perfection. The Italian bass is still in firm, flexible voice and, if he goes for all the buffo mannerisms, he does it with aplomb. Finally, Adam Plachetka is an unusual choice for the part of Alidoro. The sound is not very Italianate, but he sang his difficult aria in a rich, full voice and complete commitment.

Even if the house orchestra is not really at ease with Rossinian phrasing, conductor Evelino Pidò managed to go beyond the imprecision and thickness to produce the necessary ebullience by choosing very fast tempi that left every musician in the pit on the edge of their seats. It must be said that he was able to do that without making violence to his cast, giving them enough leeway to truly communicate… and to breathe.

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When you have an impressively supple orchestra such as the one in the Vienna State Opera, a conductor must feel tempted to pull all the stops. Therefore, I understand Michael Güttler’s inclination to make it fast and loud and exciting – and the outpouring of glittering, transparent and clear sounds from the pit were indeed a pleasure in itself. I doubt that someone might be able to listen to Rossini’s score more adeptly played than this evening. But then there are singers on stage too – and we must certainly consider them in bel canto repertoire. In the program book, we read that, when the new opera house by the Kärntner Straße was opened in 1869, there were doubts if works like La Cenerentola could be performed there, because “only a few singers were able to fill the large hall with their voices”. Precisely. Although the Vienna State Opera does not have a huge auditorium for today’s standards, it is still large enough and the orchestral sound can be overwhelming, as this evening. The first time I’ve heard La Cenerentola live, Olga Borodina sang the title role in the Metropolitan Opera House. Then I wrote ” Although her manners are a bit grand for poor-thing Cinderella, listening to such an exquisite opulent voice move so gracefully through Rossinian phrases is something every admirer of bel canto should do. Rarely has the triumph of goodness sounded as triumphant as in the crowning glory of the Russian mezzo’s rendition of the closing scene”. I could not help thinking of that performance this evening, when singers were in such disadvantage. Part of me wished that the orchestra could be a little bit more discrete to accommodate the cast, but ultimately I wished that singers such as the young Borodina could be found to make it all really exciting.

Vivica Genaux is no Borodina. Her lean mezzo soprano has limited volume, but a bright edge makes it hearable, especially in its lower end. The problem is that the part of Angelina often confines her to areas of her voice when she could not really pierce through a formidable orchestra. To make things a little bit more problematic, her high notes were not truly there this evening. Her impressive control of fast divisions helped her to distract the audience from that problem, but the variations offered in the final scene could not replace the climactic high notes Rossini expected his audiences to hear. In any case, her coloratura is indeed very exciting and could keep you in the edge of your seat in the prevailing fast tempi. Her Prince Charming, Dmitry Korchak, couldn’t help smearing a bit his runs under the circumstances. His voice is rounder, more natural and stronger-centered than most tenors in this repertoire – and his high notes are refreshingly forceful and firm. One could see that producing graceful, gentle phrasing requires great concentration from him, and I wonder how long he will resist moving to lighter lyric roles (and eventually to full lyric parts). If Nicolay Borchev’s baritone is a bit thick and dark for Italian roles, he is more faithful to his fioriture than many a singer in the role of Dandini. He is unexaggeratedly funny and has good pronunciation. The only Italian in the cast, Paolo Rumetz, offered an unexaggerated performance as well as Don Magnifico, but there were too many moments of inaudibility for comfort. Although Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s voice is a bit light for Alidoro, he sang forcefully and stylishly. Both singers cast as Tisbe and Clorinda needed more focused voice to be heard in ensembles.

Sven-Eric Bechtholf sets the action in the 1950’s and keeps everything extremely busy and frantic. Sometimes, during important arias, parallel action takes place in the background for laughs, what is a bit disrespectful both for the composer and the musicians performing his music. At first, the action suggested something Fellini-ian and that seemed promising, but then the whole thing started to get frankly silly à la Roberto Benigni: Alidoro is here some sort of flirtatious Don Alfonso with some supernatural powers (whereas Rossini precisely asks the opposite of that), the Prince has a Freudian thing with sport cars and all the scenes in the palace take place in his garage – banquet and wedding included. Characters who are supposed not to hear something are often in places where they would have to be deaf not to hear that; sometimes they are placed in a way that collides with the situation described in the libretto, making for awkward maneuvers to get character X quickly in position B etc. In the end, I had the impression that the director does not truly believe in this opera and decided that his helping hand would make it better. Well, the long change of sets certainly made it lenghtier.

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Why is that British opera stagings are all so beige? We all know that one week of Komische Oper makes one eager for some dreariness, but, really, what is the point of importing Peter Hall’s unimaginative production from Glyndenbourne? Take Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s film with Frederica von Stade and replace all colours for pastels and you can tell everyone you had the pleasure of visiting the English countryside in your tuxedo while watching this most agreeable performance of Rossini’s masterpiece. The lack of imagination applies to the stage direction too – all the clichés of Rossini staging are unashamedly paraded in front of your eyes. As Morticia Adams once said, one can forgive everything but pastels. Maybe that is why Angelina has a full-golden wedding dress in the closing scene. Her revenge might be her forgiveness, but it seems she will do some redecorating in the Prince’s palace.

In terms of casting, some replacement has happened before the première. Conductor Paolo Arrivabeni has fallen ill  and was replaced by Guillermo García Calvo, who could not resist the house orchestra’s richness of sound. Although that meant that singers would now and then be overshadowed by breathtaking vortices of string passagework, I have to confess that rarely have I paid so much attention to Rossini’s colourful orchestral writing. Maybe if the cast counted with larger-sized voices, this could have been an unforgettable Rossinian night. In any case, one will not forget the orchestral display – even in the conductor’s agile tempi, the sound was always full and flexible.

Sometimes one has the opportunity of hearing something so overwhelming that his or her future experience will be forever touched by that. And I could not help thinking of Olga Borodina’s Cenerentola at the Met in 2005, which was one of the most impressive vocal performances I have ever seen. That was a voice of real depth and volume flowing through Rossini’s fioriture with no hint of effort. That was a voice large enough to preside over ensembles and to create a truly regal effect in the rondo finale. I remember I wrote back then “rarely has the triumph of virtue sounded so triumphant as in Olga Borodina’s voice tonight”. I am sure that Ruxandra Donose’s lighter and smokier mezzo-soprano must work to perfection in Glyndenbourne. Although the Deutsche Oper is no Metropolitan Opera House,  it is a large theatre for European standards and she took a while to warm. Until then, she tended to disappear in ensembles. Once she adjusted to the hall’s size, she never failed to impress in clear coloratura and in her seductively dusky low and medium register. Her top notes tend to sound bleached out and the closing scene was more efficient than astonishing. But – and this is a big “but” – she won me over nonetheless. She is a skilled and intelligent actress who projects a lovely personality throughout and never forgets that hers is one of the “serious” characters in the opera. At the end, one remembers her performance as extremely touching and the less than deluxe vocal resources seem to be part of her Angelina’s modest sweetness.

She was ideally paired by Mario Zeffiri’s Don Ramiro. Nobody wants to be called tenorino today, but it seems Zeffiri is comfortable with being something like our day’s Luigi Alva. His voice has nothing of the metallic quality most Rossinian tenors have today – there is an easy, smiling quality in his tenor and his facility with mezza voce makes his lyric moments particularly effective. He has an amazingly long breath and often shows off his ability to fly above high c, sustain it and then go on singing without pause. His big aria was a showcase of ornamentation, including a perfect trill. His acting abilities are not in the level of his Angelina, but he seems comfortable with what is required from him and – being the prince charming – his more discrete manners made sense in comparison to Dandini and Don Magnifico.

One always speak of how difficult the mezzo and tenor parts are, but one must never forget that Dandini is hard work. I do not remember having ever heard live or in recordings an immaculate performance of this role. Simon Pauly has no reason to be ashamed – although the voice is rather dark, it is always well-focused. He works hard for passagework and, once his voice starts to move, the sound is not always really pleasant. In this sense, the contrast with Lorenzo Regazzo’s Magnifico was quite telling, since the Italian bass-baritone offered crystal-clear divisions. I have to say that this is probably Regazzo’s best role. I tend to find him hyperactive, but Magnifico requires that. As a result, he seems to have limitless supplies of energy and is never caught short in any of Magnifico’s hyperbolic arias. Although Wojetk Gierlach’s high notes are a bit woolly, he sang Alidoro’s big aria with real bravura. I tend to be picky about the role of Clorinda – if the voice does not shine in the ensembles, than the part is rather pointless. I do not believe Martina Welschenbach was properly cast – her voice is charming, but not glittering enough up there. On the other hand, Lucia Cirillo’s sexy and fruity mezzo-soprano shows some promise.

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I remember a couple of years ago when this young sweet-looking pure-toned mezzo-soprano from the Czech Republic surfaced into the world of classical music media. I first saw her on video singing Bach’s Kantate BWV 199 and was immediately converted into a Magdalena Kozena’s fan. That said, I cannot state I have been an unconditional one – I believe that the French opera disc was a bit misguided (although there is much to cherish there) and the Handel disc… well, scroll down to read what I’ve said about it. But it seems that the fickle nature of the public has turned its thumbs downwards at the moment and, as much as poor Angelina in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, her luck has suddenly changed for a while. The ease with which she has been raised to fame has now become a constant effort to prove herself, which – in my opinion – is extremely unfair. Even when she is wrong, Kozena does not have to prove herself: she has already done it and proved she belongs into the list of serious artists in her generation (I would write “…of great singers…”, but it seems that this kind of artistry is usually measured in dB and histrionics).

I don’t know how wise was the idea of singing Rossini’s Cinderella live in such an inauspicious moment in her career. I remember an old interview in which she said she did not see herself singing anything by the composer from Pesaro in the future, because she didn’t feel connected to his music (truth be said, she mentioned then that Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier would be more like it, but I guess experience probably showed this was something like a pipedream for her). The outcome couldn’t be less promising – reviews were cold at best.

I feel inclined to write that certain externalities has some share of responsibility in the lukewarm impression on Kozena’s Cenerentola. By one of those coincidences made in hell, Cecilia Bartoli happened to be in town with her Malibran-on-the-road and include the Scene and Rondo finale from… La Cenerentola in the programme. It was expected from reviewers to compare them, but when an insensible one had the bad idea of liking Kozena better, the whole legion of Bartoli-fans started a gruesome campaign against the trespasser.

As I didn’t happen to be in London, I have to rely on Parsifal‘s in-house recordings (and thank him for his generosity) to say anything. Before I say anything, I must confess the Roman Diva does not count me among her admirers but nonetheless I muss admit that she still sings the hell out of that scene. I just don’t understand why Bartoli’s so-called supremacy must mean that Kozena should be stoned for her beautiful performance. Yes, I said beautiful.

I was surprised to find, against what I should expect, her low register fully functional in that role. Also, her excursions to the extreme top notes sounded crystalline to my ears, not to mention her fioriture are admirably clean (as usual). I am not a die-hard believer in Italianate style and never resist Mozartian poise (yes, I belong to those who like Gundula Janowitz’s Elisabeth, Gwyneth Jones’s Aida, Tatiana Troyanos’s Amneris [btw, I’ll be poisting on this subject next]). However, maybe because Kozena does not has a natural feeling for Rossinian lines (as she herself has acknowledged), her performance is basically uncommunicative. She expresses little sense of infatuation in her duet with the Prince, does not convey the necessary party-stopping glamour in her arrival at the ball and is a bit mechanical in the closing scene (a slower pace might have helped her there, I reckon). However, her vocalism is always secure, musicianly and pleasant in the ear. Therefore, I consider the stern criticism against her rather mean. I would even say she was probably the must-see feature in the show: the settings are widely considered ugly, the orchestra was indisciplined (and the conductor didn’t seem worried about making things less spectacular but tidier) and although Toby Spence sang well, the role is too high and fast for his voice and the results were rather hearty than charming. Of course, Simone Alberghini is a most reliable Dandini (as he was at the Met in 2005) despite a vibrato that can get loose sometimes and Alessandro Corbelli is a most experienced and charismatic if over-the-top Don Magnifico – but one could have sampled them in many other Cenerentole around the world.

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