Every spring, the Washington National Opera launches a family friendly show in time for their M&M’S® Opera in the Outfield, and this year they tackle Rossini’s wickedly funny Cinderella. I love what Director Joan Font did with this production, taking the hilarious libretto by Jacopo Ferretti and milking every moment for additional laughs. Gioachino Rossini wrote the music for this opera, which premiered in 1817. The opera is sung in Italian with English surtitles.
Nothing about this is subtle – beginning with Rossini’s acrobatic score and Ferretti’s tongue twisting lyrics right through all of the design. The costumes and set by Joan Guillén are magnificently ridiculous. The set is made of simple walls of paper that act as convenient silhouettes with a large fireplace as the centerpiece. Lighting Designer made full use of the translucent walls by decking the set in additional color.
In this show, it’s not Cinderella’s coach, but the prince’s that receives the most attention and Guillén’s ingenious way of showing the prince’s desperate search for his missing love is inspired. It involves a coach of various sizes driving all over the set and also giant rats. More about them later. Still, nothing can upstage his costumes with neon fabric draped over dramatic bustles, hilarious pajamas, puffed sleeves, and men’s coats in a dozen colors, all topped by foot high wigs in yellow, pink, and blue.
The craziest costumes were for six dancers dressed as rats. It seems an odd note of Disneyfication, but they are useful as set changers and general comic relief and definitely contribute to the dream-like quality of the whole show.
Font makes good use of all of these visuals as he creates tableaus for every scene. Much of the piece is sung together by the main cast and Font does not waste these moments. Every scene is choreographed to have actors spinning around, popping up and down, tumbling up and down stairs and otherwise posed to greatest effect. He also plays up the comedy like when the prince learns to use a broom or the evil stepsisters are caught in their undergarments with one blanket between them.
Rossini was 25 and fresh off his hit The Barber of Seville when he composed this; it took him all of three weeks. Speranza Scappucci conducts and also plays the cembalo (a type of harpsichord) from the podium. She tackles his musical fireworks with aplomb.
Cinderella is now one of the most performed operas in the world, but that wasn’t the case for a few decades because the main role, Angelina (Cinderella) is written for a contralto voice. Some suspect this is to play up her humility and kindness without soaring soprano heights. Now considered a key role for contraltos and mezzo-sopranos, the opera is back in style and Grammy-award winning star Isabel Leonard makes her WNO debut in the role. She deserves all of her accolades. She is a nuanced actor who can walk the line between a sweetness that is almost too good to be true and amusement at all of the ridiculousness. Plus her voice is heaven. Rossini delights in the bel canto tradition of vocal acrobatics with runs of impossibly fast arpeggios and scales and soaring notes for every character. Leonard excels at this in her arias “Non piu mesta” and the penultimate “Una volta c’era un re 2.” Tara Erraught will play the role on select dates.
Russian tenor Maxim Mironov (Don Ramiro) is an excellent foil for her with a soaring tenor voice and great comic timing. His “Si ritrovarla io guiros” is sweet and their duet “Un soave non so che” is hilarious. They manage to eek out a real love story in the midst of the over-the-top comedy. David Portillo will play the role on select dates.
Simone Alberghini (Dandini) may have the fastest runs of the piece in his duet with Magnifico, “Un segreto d’importanza,” which is really saying something. In a Shakespearean twist, he is the valet and his valet is the prince. He excels at this servant/master role.
Bass-baritone Shenyang (Alidoro) plays the fairy godfather and has one of the few serious moments of the show in aria “La notte e omai vicina,” because it is not magical, but spiritual power that effects Cinderella’s transformation and he calls on God for justice.
In contrast, Paolo Bordogna (Don Magnifico) has the greatest comedy as the evil stepfather. He is, as the prince remarks, a buffoon and embraces that completely – especially for his ode to wine in “Intendente? Direttor?” as he rides around the stage on a barrel and an old boot. Valeriano Lanchas will play the role on select dates.
Jacqueline Echols and Deborah Nansteel (Clorinda and Tisbe) are members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program with the WNO. They are both hilarious as the stepsisters and can hold their own with the more experienced cast.
That’s important in this piece, which is very focused on the ensemble, both the chorus of male attendants to the prince who are hilarious in every detail on their songs like “Conciossiacosacche,” as well as in the recitatives for the main cast, which are often sung by all of the principals together. Rossini fell in love with rounds in this piece where singers echo each other like on the intricate act 1 finale, “Mi par d’essere sognando,” normally a place to have the two lovers off dueting by themselves, but which involves the whole cast instead.
Everyone onstage and off get into the spirit of this piece – a goodhearted show set in a truly fantastical realm. The WNO welcomes spring with a joyful, funny, lighthearted fairy tale.
Running Time: Three hours, with one 20-minute intermission.
Cinderella plays through May 21, 2015 at the Washington National Opera performing in The Kennedy Center Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600 or 1-800-444-1324, or purchase them online.