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November 8, 2005

Lyric Opera’s La Cenerentola makes a fun but flawed Cinderella story

The curtains went down this Friday upon the Lyric Opera’s last performance of Rossini’s La Cenerentola this season, to an enthusiastic but slightly uncertain audience. Their hesitancy was well occasioned, for while certain aspects of the production were absolutely brilliant, the crucial character of the eponymous protagonist left much to be desired. Vesselina Kasarova played the title role, and, without exception, her tone erred on the side of the overwrought. She had a full, warm voice that lifted Cinderella’s character from the traditional morass of fragility and vulnerability, imbuing her with equal measures of conviction and calculation.

Kasarova’s Cinderella was meant to be a woman of contemptuous disdain who slices through the affectations of her relatives—an interesting interpretive move that would have succeeded had it not been for her unfortunate overlays of vibrato on every note. The thick, Wagnerian flourishes with which she sang everything crumbled the delicate structures of Rossini; too often, one could not be sure if she was sustaining a note or trilling it. Given that the composer delights in the expressive use of tremolando figures and turns in his vocal writing, the effect was rather jarring. Further, in her recitatives, she appeared to put too much emphasis on her vocalizations and did not manage to thread together the various discrete elements into a melodic narrative. Puccini would have withstood, and perhaps even benefited, from this treatment, but Rossini is much more like Mozart in that regard—his conversations need to be sung, not spoken.

To make matters both better and worse, Don Ramiro was played by Juan Diego Flórez, a quintessentially Rossini tenor. His tone was light, crisp and very supple—he effortlessly floated out the high notes, skipping lightly and with impeccable enunciation through the feathery passagework that Rossini favors for his operatic heroes. His tone, especially in the upper register, is reminiscent of the immortal Luigi Alva’s. However, his blend with Kasarova was uneven, precisely because he was so ideally suited to this repertoire and all the lightness and transparency it implies, while she would have made a wonderful Fricka.

She overpowered him, and their attacks and approaches to each note were so different that the overall sound was corrugated.

It turns out that the theme of a soprano-alto heavy blend was a pervasive one; the quartet in Act II, when the two stepsisters Clorinda (Lauren Curnow) and Tisbe (Meredith Arwady) pursue Dandini (Levi Hernandez) and Ramiro, was also bedeviled by it. Hernandez is a light bass-baritone, while Curnow and Arwardy both have gorgeous yet very heavy tones. The quartet is top-weighted, and although every singer was individually expressive, the blend was hardly balanced. In addition to being fantastic singers, Curnow and Arwardy were also wonderful actors, perfectly conveying the pettishness, ludicrousness, and ditzy ambition that lies at the heart of the stepsisters’ roles. Hernandez played the role of a male coquette to the hilt, strutting about the stage in magnificently borrowed feathers. His soufflé-like voice contrasted beautifully with the pomposity of Don Magnifico (Alessandro Corbelli) in the aria Un segreto d’importanza.

The acting in general was superb, and in this aspect, it must be said that Donald Palumbo’s male chorus fairly stole the show. They were hilariously satiric—never losing their tone, even when engaged in the liveliest of antics. One of the many brilliantly choreographed moments of the evening occurred when Cinderella was engaged in begging the Prince’s royal pardon for her sisters; as a body, the chorus took out their white handkerchiefs and began dabbing at their eyes, in sarcastic praise of her unspeakable nobility.

Overall, however, the performance was an entertaining one—although sufficiently unlike the general critical appraisal of the opening night to make one speculate about bad days and off-times. Under the baton of Bruno Campanella, the orchestral playing was subtle and perfectly in tune with the singing. (Few conductors are so intimately responsive to the theatrical demands of a production.) The orchestra did have some dry moments directly after the overture, when the sound thinned out to a specter with gusty woodwinds, but on the whole, it was very well handled. It was a delightful end to the run of La Cenerentola; an eloquent showcase of what could go right and wrong with this witty little morceau of the Opera Buffa canon.