“The best laid plans of mice and men, often go awry.” In this case, to the great enjoyment of all in the Washington National Opera’s dazzling, fun production of Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella (La Cenerentola), a comedic opera in two acts.
The story of Cinderella is, of course, the most famous and reenacted fairy tale of our time, but Rossini’s rendition is a surprisingly new and refreshing take on the age-old classic. The heartfelt rags-to-riches story was transformed into a delightful opera by the young Rossini – only 25 years old at the time of its creation – and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti. The youthful exuberance of its composer shows in every buoyant note, little joke, and flitting stage movement, and the opera becomes a lively and joyous kind of production that takes a new spin on the traditional Cinderella plot.
Instead of a wicked stepmother, Angelina – better known as La Cenerentola “Cinderella” – lives in the house of her stepfather, the Baron Don Magnifico, a bumbling, drink-loving fool who has rather a cruel streak and lavishes wealth and adoration on his two natural-born daughters, Clorinda and Tisbe, with money he doesn’t have. The stepsisters are as frivolous and mean-spirited as ever, but the magic that rests in the fairy is instead placed in the wise and pedagogic Alidoro, mentor and advisor to Prince Ramiro, the hero. In his quest to find a wife, Prince Ramiro goes to great lengths to use disguise, throw a ball and even play at role-switching with his valet, the tricky Dandini. Hilarity and confusion ensue, although as with any great fairy tale, by curtain’s close, true love abounds and the good virtues of forgiveness and goodness prevail.
It is something of note that the role of the kind, humble, heroine is penned for mezzo-soprano rather than soprano. The lower register perhaps appealed to Rossini as a way to acknowledge the humility and down-to-earth qualities of the titular character, and which of course also brings out a certain, true kind of depth to the voice. Tara Erraught in this performance shined as Cinderella.
Erraught makes her WNO as well as US operatic stage debut with this particular performance tonight, and we are mostly certainly glad to welcome her from her native Ireland. Educated at the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Erraught’s long list of accomplishments include the prestigious Bavarian Pro meritis scientiae et litterarum award, multiple international tours as a recitalist and numerous debuts in key operatic roles, as well as experience as Angelia with the Hamburg State Opera’s La Cenerentola. Erraught is wondrous, insofar as, somehow, through voice and action, she brings to visible life the best qualities of Cinderella – mild-mannered, empathetic, honest, and good – in a way gives little doubt the true nature imbued in the person standing on stage.
The earnest and steadfast young Price Ramiro was performed tonight by David Portillo, similarly making his WNO debut. Portillo, credited widespread international acclaim especially for his portrayal of Rossini’s leading men, transfuses the adoration that is prevalent in his persona’s demeanor through his pure tenor tone.
Bass-baritone Shenyang is the somber and powerful Alidoro, tall and resplendent in his robes of royal blue stars, especially impressive revealing himself to “figlia” Cinderella in her transformation scene in Act I (“Si, tutto cangera”). Clorinda (Jacqueline Echols) and Tisbe (Deborah Nansteel) are model archetypes and quite funny as the evil stepsisters, while Don Magnifico, performed by the excellent Paolo Bordogna, rounds off the comedic villainous trio. We cannot bypass Dandini the valet, performed by Simone Alberghini, gleeful in his part in the role-switching charade and duplicity of the Baron.
A most ingenious part of the production – and certainly the most humorous – are the six little life-sized mice (principal dancers) that scurry to and fro across the stage, bobbing up behind chairs and doorframes, shaking their noses and tails and performing some rather impressive acts of physicality. They imbue another level of lightness to the evening – a fun and playful nod to a little trope of Cinderella we all recognize and adore.
The true highlight, of course, is the music of the night; in conjunction with the wealth of talent on stage bringing vocal prowess is the WNO Chorus and Orchestra, led by conductor Speranza Scappucci. But, an opera is not an opera without the pageantry for the eyes, and the production absolutely delivered. Director Joan Font’s subtle touches and decisions in the way of the acting, staging, movement, meld together with the voice direction she no doubt was instrumental in molding. Set and costume designer Joan Guillen, and lighting designer Albert Faura, work together to create a wonderful – almost fantastical – little world of colors and shapes and brightness. A clever use of doors and lights and props shift scenes with minimal effort, and gave the audience many moments of light laughs.
Ultimately, the evening was a clever, funny, and simple enjoyment of good opera. Cinderella is truly a show for all audience, chock full of whimsy and ingenuity, charm and fun. A wonderful choice to ring in the warm weather and lighter tones of the repertoire literature, I think the WNO has hit a home run with this production of La Cenerentola.
Running Time: Three hours with one twenty (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.
Cinderella is reviewed by Jessica Vaughan on DCMetroTheaterArts (Isabel Leonard).