Brother, can you spare a dime? Well, hold on to your change: Glimmerglass Opera's new production of Rossini's La Cenerentola, set here in Depression-era America circa 1933, creates a 'New Deal' of its own – forging a stimulus package that generates outstanding individual and ensemble singing, snappy stage action and cleverly synchronized comedic interplay of characters that at times may have you wondering whether you're watching opera or a Marx Brothers film.
Jack Benny once said that the secret of comedy is in the timing. Director Kevin Newbury's clockwork precision in coupling the characters' onstage actions to the words (and occasionally to the music) captures the buffa spirit of this production, drawing a steady stream of laughter from the audience that suggests Mr. Benny may have been on to something. Moreover, the motion of the characters and stage props appear to grow busier in-sync with the many Rossini crescendos (identical music phrases that repeat while increasing in volume with each successive repetition) that permeate the work. Of course, there's more to this opera buffa than just comedy: La Cenerentola is a work full of graceful bel canto arias and striking ensemble numbers, and the opera contains Rossini's most brilliant coloratura writing for mezzo-soprano and baritone.
Even if you've never seen the opera, chances are you're already familiar with the plot: It's the Cinderella (Cenerentola) tale with a few casting changes, and without the supernatural elements. The wicked stepmother is replaced by a just as wicked stepfather (the basso buffo role of Don Magnifico), and Cenerentola's fairy godmother is now Alidoro, a philosopher and tutor to the Prince (who, in Newbury's Depression-era setting is now a wealthy businessman). Gone are the pumpkin-turned-carriage, mice-turned-coachmen and glass slipper (here, a bracelet).
The role of Cenerentola, or Angelina as she is called in this opera, calls for a coloratura mezzo soprano. Julie Boulianne's rich low and middle mezzo register produced all the warmth and mellow timbre more commonly associated with a contralto, yet her voice proved flexible enough to navigate the highly embellished duet with Don Ramiro ('Un soave non so che') with grace and élan. Boulianne still had plenty left at the end of this three-hour performance to dazzle the crowd with the virtuosic 'Nacqui all'affanno, al pianto'.
John Tessier, as Don Ramiro, possesses a charming lyric tenor whose clarity of focus remained intact throughout the afternoon. Using a fluid and seamless legato to great advantage, Tessier captivated the audience as he sailed effortlessly from pitch to pitch, even up to the high Cs in his signature second-act aria, 'Si, ritrovarla io guiro'.
The great basso buffo role of Don Magnifico, sung and acted to near-perfection by Eduardo Chama, proved to be one of the high points of this production. Making his initial entrance in slovenly fashion wearing pajamas, an open robe and hair that would have embarrassed even Beethoven, Chama's Magnifico proved less of a buffoon than a loveable (if not grumpy) authoritarian – along the lines, perhaps, of Ed Asner's Lou Grant character from the classic Mary Tyler Moore Show. Try as I might, I just couldn't dislike the guy – and I suspect many in the audience were relieved when his forgiving stepdaughter Angelina pardoned him at the close of the opera. After some slight pitch problems early in his signature aria 'Miei rampolli femminili', Chama went on to achieve a solid vocal presence and create a memorable character.
The second brilliantly executed comedic role in this production, and another effort likely to be remembered for years to come, was Keith Phares' Dandini – valet to Ramiro who is all too eager to play the role of 'prince for a day' at his employer's request. Making his entrance sporting a slick three-piece suit, fur coat and greased-back coif, Phares resembled a character culled from a ‘30s style gangster movie.
The role of Dandini calls for a coloratura baritone – an uncommon vocal presence that, like the role of Angelina, demands great flexibility for the florid vocal embellishments. Phares' handsome baritone was at once evident in his tongue-in-cheek aria 'Come un'ape ne' giorni d'aprile', and his superb comedic acting spiced up the many ensemble numbers, particularly his second-act duet with Don Magnifico ('Un segreto d'importanza'). I was also impressed with the singer's rhythmic skills in the second-act sextet ('Siete voi?'), where his razor sharp dotted-rhythmic figures were as accurate as any of the instruments accompanying the singers from the pit.
As Magnifico's selfish and egocentric daughters, Glimmerglass Young Artists Jamilyn Manning-White and Karin Mushegain (Clorinda and Tisbe, respectively) combined unctuous stage presence with a relentless comic demeanor that never seemed to grow tiresome. Seeking the attention of the wealthy Don Ramiro, the obsequious sisters slinked, slanked and slithered upon every chair, couch and table within reach in a continuing effort to capture his attention. As Alidoro, the youthful looking Joshua Jeremiah (also from the Glimmerglass Young Artists program) was pleasant in voice but seemingly miscast in this production, lacking the looks and demeanor of a wise philosopher and advisor to the noble Ramiro.
Despite some pesky intonation problems in the overture, and a clearly tired trumpet section at the climactic conclusion to Act I, the Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra responded willingly to conductor Joseph Colaneri's adventurous tempos and consistently produced crisply executed dotted-rhythmic figures throughout the performance.
As in Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, the ensemble numbers in Rossini's La Cenerentola (duets, quintets, sextets) generally outshine the individual arias in this opera, and here's where the production achieved its most satisfying musical results. Colaneri kept the singers tightly tethered to Rossini's relentless tempos during the pernicious ensemble numbers, at times waiving his arms high into the air – such as during the rapid parlando passages in the first-act Quintet ('Signore, una parola') and duet ('Zitto, zitto: piano, piano') – in a mostly successful attempt to align the rapid-fire syllables of the singers to the beat of the music.
Newbury's period motive is buoyed by Scenery Director Cameron Anderson's three-piece set depicting Don Magnifico's once-proud home, now falling into disrepair, barren except for a table and some chairs – and a bathtub (used by Magnifico to keep his beer cold). Later, the action moves to the splendor and elegance of Don Ramiro's library, buoyed by props such as a large globe of the earth (which sadly squeaked audibly when spun), model ships and a mission-style table.
Jessica Jahn's costumes successfully delineate the gap between the economic classes, from the downtrodden attire of the poor souls waiting at the soup line (placed in front of the curtain between each scene change), to the dazzling vintage evening dresses donned by Magnifico's shapely daughters at the Ramiro mansion. Especially stunning was Angelina's exquisite gown, which on Boulianne produced a look somewhere between Jean Harlow and Princess Grace Kelly. D. M. Wood's shadows and fog lighting effects at Magnifico's house during the thunderstorm scene in Act II delivered a suitable imagery for not only the storm, but also Cenerentola's depressing isolation at the hands of her loveless stepfather and stepsisters.
In spite of Newbury's best efforts, the stage action in the second act sagged quite a bit – in part because the director had by that time exhausted ways to choreograph his principal characters and tux-donned servants, but mostly because Rossini had exhausted his musical ideas earlier in this three-hour opera. Still, this production is a veritable tour de force of synergistic buffa ensemble and is likely to be remembered for years to come.
By David Abrams
Photo credits: Richard Termine
Performances continue until 23 August 2009. More information at www.glimmerglass.org.