The subtitle of La Cenerentola may be 'The triumph of goodness' but The Royal Opera's current revival of the work cannot be judged in quite such positive terms.
Rossini's reworking of the Cinderella story is an absolute masterpiece - arguably superior to Il barbiere di Siviglia - and its musical and comic riches are such that only the most dire of performances (which this isn't) render it less than enjoyable. But there are so many musical flaws in the ROH's revival that although it still puts a smile on one's face, the effect doesn't linger for long.
Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's 2000 production remains witty, colourful and entertaining without particularly probing the darker elements of what is, after all, a dramma giocoso rather than an opera buffa. A basic false proscenium is a token gesture to the conscious artifice of Rossinian convention, but otherwise we're transported to a straightforward mid-twentieth century setting. Don Magnifico's salon is falling to bits, allegedly, though the dilapidation is provided by simple lighting effects. The back section of it moves out smoothly to reveal Prince Ramiro's carriage, here a stylish Rolls-Royce motorcar, and the shell of the set is only slightly modified with a few bits of furniture, trees in pots and a chandelier to represent the palace. It's all very charming, if unchallenging. Personally, I'd like some of the darker emotions to come through and didn't feel much of the sadness and heartache of Cinderella was really explored. It seems to me that Rossini deliberately removed the magic and wizardry from the story in order to humanise it, but here a lot of the actors just ham it up to provide the entertainment.
It would be difficult to imagine a handsomer Prince and Cinderella than Toby Spence and Magdalena Kozená. Spence looked splendid in his costumes as the valet and the prince and Kozena has a dazzling glamour which makes her ideal heroine material. However, neither was well-cast vocally - inevitably so, in my opinion. Kozená normally sings Handel and Mozart and doesn't have the right quality of voice (beautiful though her basic instrument is) to sing Italian opera of this style. She didn't project strongly for much of the evening, lacking tone in her much-repeated song for instance. When she embarked on Angelina's spectacular rondo finale, Kozená totally stepped out of character and turned her back on Ramiro and the other principals, looking completely uncomfortable throughout her forced rendition of the coloratura runs (during the last of which her voice cracked). Evidently the singer had agreed to take on the role just so that she could make her Royal Opera debut, but it doesn't show her off to her best; considering she has shown an antipathy to Rossini and this opera in a couple of recent newspaper interviews, I wonder why she agreed to take on a role which she doesn't like and which doesn't suit her?
Meanwhile at the conclusion of Toby Spence's aria, there was an embarrassed silence followed by muted applause from some members of the audience. While he had shown promise in the initial stages of the first act with some warm tone, Spence was clearly ill at ease with the tessitura of the role of Ramiro and did neither Rossini nor himself justice. He cracked on the top Cs of his aria, barely making any sound at all during the final one, and it was sad to see him look so strained. Nevertheless, he played the prince as to the manor born, and it's a shame that the music isn't better suited to his voice.
Sweeping aside nearly everyone else on stage, Alessandro Corbelli's magnificent performance reasserted the opinion held by many that it takes an Italian to sing Italian music properly (though I can think of a few exceptions). His understanding of the language, his vocal ease and suitability for the part and his unerring comic timing and instincts were second to none at this performance. It was worth attending for his hilarious acting and complex role assumption alone; his Don Magnifico is not just a bumbling fool but someone in desperation who is trying to ignore a troubled conscience. Wonderful singing and vivid acting: bel canto at its best.
Next to him, I thought the daughters, Elena Xanthoudakis (Clorinda) and Leah-Marian Jones (Tisbe), were also excellent, Xanthoudakis singing with the ringing quality and controlled legato which Kozená lacked and Jones throwing herself into the comedy with as much aplomb as she has on previous occasions when singing this role in this production. Lorenzo Regazzo had charisma as Alidoro and I admired his singing in general, though his voice can sound hollow and unfocussed in coloratura passages. It was unfortunate that Stéphane Degout suddenly came down with an infection during the second half of the first act, because initially he sang with lyrical strength; I don't know why his understudy didn't relieve him of the part in the second act, however, since it was clearly causing him physical and mental strain to continue.
My reaction to Evelino Pidò's conducting was roughly the same for this Cenerentola as it was for the recent recording of La sonnambula. Love, care and attention were evident; when singers were in trouble, he usually stepped in to help. But I found the tempo choices erratic, mostly far too pedestrian and slow but sometimes too fast for the singers to keep up. Both problems caused lapses of ensemble in many of the numbers in the opera, whether in the stretta to the first act (which Pidò started at too fast a tempo for the singers and had to reign it back) or in Ramiro's aria (where Toby Spence got several beats out of synch with the orchestra). There was a lack of fire in the 'Temporale' (storm music), which somewhat mirrored the lack of tempestuousness on the stage at that point; the big joke in the sextet 'Siete voi?', where the rolled 'r' sounds are meant to cause hilarity by being exaggerated, was missed by all but Corbelli; and while I admired the observance of the many quiet dynamics in the score by Pidò, the corresponding loud dynamics (providing excitement) were mostly absent. It was a perfectly efficient musical reading of the opera, but the sparkle and champagne were only rarely in evidence, there were quite a lot of mistakes and many small details were overlooked.
With Mark Elder's splendid interpretation of the opera a few years ago with Juan Diego Flórez still fixed in the memory, and outstanding DVDs with Ann Murray and Frederica von Stade in the title role easily available, it is difficult to rate this revival as highly as one might hope. And with Joyce DiDonato and Florez performing the opera in Barcelona next week, it's hard not to feel a little jealous that we don't have such high-quality Rossinians in the ROH production. But it's good clean fun for the Christmas period and never less than enjoyable.
Read our interview with Alessandro Corbelli on singing Don Magnifico in these performances of La Cenerentola here.
Also read our interview with Toby Spence on singing Don Ramiro for the first time in these performances of La Cenerentola here.
La Cenerentola runs until the middle of January at the Royal Opera House.