A Dream Amidst the Ashes – Opéra de Montréal’s Beautiful Cenerentola

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REVIEW: of La Cenerentola by Gioachino Rossini (libretto by Jacopo Ferretti) at l’Opéra de Montréal (viewed opening night, November 11, 2017 at Montreal’s Place des Arts / Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier).

Splendid, strange, hypnotic, and thigh-slappingly hilarious, Rossini’s famous operatic reworking of the Cinderella tale, La Cenerentola, comes to vibrant life in the new Opéra de Montréal production running now through November 18.

Premiering in 1817, Rossini and his librettist, Jacopo Ferretti, rang numerous changes on the classic Cinderella story (as enshrined in Charles Perrault’s seminal 1697 version) – changes both practical and dramatically ingenious. Importantly, for instance, Cinderella’s Prince Charming, here named Prince Ramiro, is no mere distant and obscure object of desire. The opera brooks no delay in a meeting between him and Cinderella (here named Angelina). Rather than waiting for the palace ball, Rossini and Ferretti contrive to have the prince enter early on, incognito – and the halting romantic bewilderment between him and Cinderella manifests in beguiling duets that are among the countless splendors of Rossini’s sparkling score.

Other notable novelties include the presence of an oppressive stepfather in place of the familiar stepmother of Perrault’s tale (this follows the precedent of a now-forgotten Nicolo Isouard opera of 1810), and the substitution of a mysteriously omnipresent male tutelary figure, Alidoro, for the classic “fairy godmother.”

Woman’s World

Indeed, other than Cinderella’s two stepsisters – here named Clorinda and Tisbe – there is no other female presence in the entire opera. The prince’s palace is staffed by an all-male chorus of retainers (this group, by the way, becomes an aggregated character in the opera on which Rossini lavishes numerous excellently boisterous musical numbers). And even the famous ball features no other aspiring princesses.

The gender imbalance may have something to do with the forces that were available to Rossini for the opera’s quickly arranged Rome premiere of 1817. But it also strikingly highlights Cinderella’s isolation, lack of maternal nurture, and the impressiveness of her own self-reliance and intestinal fortitude. A creature of remarkable resiliency and moral resource, the character ultimately earns the opera’s noteworthy subtitle, La bonta in trionfo – “Goodness Triumphant.”

Who’s Who?

The opera’s other governing trope is one of disguise and confused identity. Much comic fodder is afforded by the presence of the prince’s buffo valet, Dandini, who trades places with his master and exploits for maximum haughty prerogative the privileges of the masquerade. But in fact every character in the opera is in mufti of one sort of another – the stepfather Don Magnifico is caught in his own fraudulent misrepresentations of affluence and savoir-faire; the stepsisters are self-victimized by their pretenses of taste, grace, and sexual allure; the sly orchestrator of much of the opera’s action, Alidoro, comes and goes disguised as a beggar, a teacher, and even the veritable voice of a supervening Fate. And even Cinderella’s own essential dramatic quest is at root a quest for identity. Deprived of her inheritance by Don Magnifico, she longs to know who she really is. Queried early on by the enraptured (and disguised) Prince Ramiro, Cinderella movingly replies to the question “who are you?” with “I almost don’t know.”

It is intriguing to recall that one of Rossini’s most influential early cultural champions, the French controversialist Stendhal, wrote at length about his own conflicted attitude toward the deceptively exuberant and ingenious La Cenerentola. Finding in it all too accurate a depiction of the rampant vanity of his own society, he claimed to deplore much of the opera in general, yet waxed rhapsodic about its many localized musical and notional splendors.

That was then. A modern audience, with the advantage of historical distance, finds readier access to both the underlying complexity and the moral gravity of La Cenerentola. One may go for the sheer joy of the music and the giddiness of the farce. One may leave with a ripened sympathy for the folly of others, and foibles of one’s own.

Simple Magic

Directed by Joan Font, and under the baton of maestro José Miguel Pérez-Sierra, Opéra de Montréal’s La Cenerentola is a beautifully paced succession of finely detailed musical and theatrical delight. The score – following as it did immediately on the heels of the triumphant Barber of Seville – represents Rossini at the height of youthful self-assurance and virtuosity. And it is here served by a consummate company of fine-voiced operatic actors.

Pietro Spagnoli (Don Magnifico), Lauren Margison (Clorinda), Rose Naggar-Tremblay (Tisbe), Juan José De Leon (Ramiro), Vito Priante (Dandini), @Yves-Renaud

Baritone Pietro Spagnoli is wonderfully rich-toned and unctuous as the pompous Don Magnifico. Baritone Vito Priante, as the impostor-prince/valet Dandini, is a comic powerhouse with a terrific, dark vocal instrument. Soprano Lauren Margison and mezzo-soprano Rose Naggar-Tremblay (members both of the company’s artist-in-residence program, the atelier lyrique) as, respectively, the stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe, are both delightful and vocally resourceful in their richly defined portraits of vanity and venality. The splendidly lurid and sonorous bass Kirk Eichelberger, as the mystical interventionist Alidoro, is an invaluable anchor amidst the comic turbulence.

Tenor Juan José de León, as Prince Ramiro, embodies the ardent Rossini romantic hero to a tee. His voice is a potent and virile engine, ideally suited to Rossini’s sometimes devilishly demanding melodic excrescences. His showpiece second act aria-with-chorus, “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro,” is masterful in its accuracy and velocity, and even features the interpolation of a remarkable high D.

Finally, mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne, as the title character, is a consummate Cenerentola. Her nectarous voice is gorgeous, glittering in its fleet liquid runs of fioritura, and throbbing with yearning in passages such as the plaintive recurring lullaby “Una volta c’era un Re.” She fully mines that song’s quasi-modal, minor-key poignancy, exoticism and romance. Boulianne’s acting is seamless, varied, lambent and pliant – a Cinderella who is not only goodness incarnate, but fully human, utterly vulnerable, ultimately indomitable.

Director Joan Font shapes much of the action with the witty deployment of a group of six dancers dressed as large rodents. One might be tempted to call them mice, pace the beguiling critters of a Disney film, but the elongation of the stylized masks – and those even longer tails –suggest that we are seeing not mice, but enormous if largely benign rats. In any event, a novel directorial conceit that could have gone theatrically awry actually turns out to be quite a witty and increasingly valuable narrative device. Starting out as humorously decorative, this rodentine corps de ballet eventually offers episodes of meta-theatrical magic, as during the storm music sequence when two rats are assigned to onstage wind machine and thunder sheet duty; or as when the entire rat assembly frames the famously idiosyncratic second-act sotto voce sextet with an effect evocative of the alienation praxis of Genet or Artaud.

At production’s end, director Font’s staging seems to whisper of circular structure. Is our heroine herself the ultimate exemplar of self-deception, her entire redemptive adventure but a dream? Each must decide for him or herself, as the evening’s provoking final tableau reverts from palatial splendor to ashes, brooms and squalor once more.

The whimsical and highly effective set and costume designs are by Joan Guillén; beautiful lighting is by Albert Faura; and ingenious rodent choreography is by Xevi Dorca.

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La Cenerentola sung in Italian with simultaneous French and English surtitles, has three remaining performances scheduled by l’Opéra de Montréal: November 14, 16 and 18th (all at 7:30 p.m. (19h30)). operademontreal.com.

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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