It is said that Gioachino Rossini didn’t like magic, so, when he set out to turn the fairy tale, “Cinderella,” into an opera, he changed a few details. No glass slipper. No fairy godmother. Not even a wicked stepmother.
In “La Cenerentola,” Cinderella’s real name is Angiolina. She’s the downtrodden maid who lives in the home of a wicked stepfather, Don Magnifico, with his two nasty, spiteful, spoiled daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe. The prince in this version is Don Ramiro and, true to operatic form, he presents himself to Angiolina and family not as a prince but disguised as his valet, Dandini. That just about does it for the cast of characters except for the prince’s tutor, a philosopher named Alidoro, who does some operatically magical work in bringing the prince and Angiolina together.
Sarasota Opera’s production of “La Cenerentola” is the complete antithesis of the one presented in recent years by the Metropolitan Opera. The Met’s production, which has featured such superstars as Cecilia Bartoli, Jennifer Larmore and Elina Garanca in the title role, has the all-male chorus appearing in strange bowler hats, while the principals’ main concern is with funny, inventive staging and incredible vocal fireworks that take the attention from the story and put it squarely on the voices.
The Sarasota Opera’s view is four-square traditional in every way. Stephanie Sundine’s staging may be somewhat static, but it allows the individual characters to evolve in a way many other productions haven’t done in recent viewings. Angiolina, in the attractive vocal and acting package of Heather Johnson, is a flesh-and-blood young woman to whom we’re able to relate. Sundine doesn’t go for the schticky theatrics that can detract from the character and, as a result, Johnson grows from a poor, oppressed, demoralized girl into a beautiful, gracious woman who is, in every way, a princess. When, at the end she sings, “My revenge will be forgiveness,” we have no doubt about the depth of her character.
Johnson has grown vocally, even in the short time since we last heard her. And her grand finale aria, “Non piu mesta,” is a tour-de-force of excellent singing. It will be interesting to see her in the role of an older woman when she returns for Sarasota’s winter season to sing the extremely different part of Goody Proctor in Robert Ward’s “The Crucible.”
Hak Soo Kim, the charming prince-of-a-Prince Charming, is a tenor to watch for in the future. In his Sarasota Opera debut, we heard a ringing, gorgeous sound that enhanced his emotionally persuasive characterization.
Sean Anderson, seen last season as Papageno, in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” cut a comic but clever character in the role of Dandini, the prince’s valet, with a strong, rich baritone.
We’re used to seeing a portly Don Magnifico, the evil stepfather. But Stefano de Peppo’s trim, slim nastiness was easy to understand, and his voice had just the right bite to add a delicious obnoxiousness to his character.
Abla Lynn Hamza, as Clorinda, and Melissa Treinkman, as Tisbe, the rotten-to-the-core stepsisters of Cenerentola, had just the right combination of offensive meanness to make you want to swat them. Both are Studio Artists who’ve appeared with Sarasota Opera before, and their powerful voices, especially Hamza’s, tend not to blend. But, then, their characters are hardly the kind of people who would want to be team players.
As Alidoro, Benjamin Gelfand was a convincing actor, but his voice sounded somewhat frayed. Perhaps he was pushing too hard on opening night.
Tony Fanning’s scenery was both fitting and lovely for each scene, especially in Prince Ramiro’s country estate, a place I wouldn’t mind living if I were a princess. Ken Yunker’s lighting heightened the sets well, and Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s costumes were fresh and inventive.
As in past fall Sarasota Opera seasons, the Sarasota Orchestra was in the pit and, as always, its members played beautifully for opera conductor Victor DeRenzi. It can’t be easy keeping pace with his particularly brisk tempos, but the instrumentalists were up to the task. DeRenzi seemed to be on the Rossini Express, and, although it does put pressure on the singers to keep up, especially in the rapid patter ensembles, it does make for exciting music.
— June LeBell