Wednesday, November 19, 2014

San Francisco Opera: Rossini's La Cenerentola

Efrain Solis as Dandini, Zanda Svede and Maria Valdes as Tisbe and Clorinda.  
November 16, 2014

With a rather straightforward rendition of Rossini’s second-favorite comedy, SFO managed to bring out the serious underlying themes in the work as well as the usual chaos, producing a vastly entertaining three hours. This was due largely to an experienced cast supremely in tune with the Rossini style.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s 1969 set is a work of art unto itself, composed of multi-story flats that don’t pretend to be houses and castles at all but more the covers of storybooks, festooned with illustrative drawings of mermaids, gargoyles, knights and nymphs. Whenever the performance slowed down (which wasn’t often), I found my eyes drifting over these imaginative figures.

Karine Deshayes as Angelina, Rene Barbera as Don Ramiro.
Under the stage direction of Gregory Fortner, Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferretti’s characters are surprisingly human. The sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, are not as caricaturized as usual;  their ugliness comes through more in their tackiness and greed.  The curtain rises on Tisbe (mezzo Zanda Svede) obsessing over her dancing and Clorinda (soprano Maria Valdes) obsessing over her beauty. (In a modernized production, I picture them taking selfies.) Svede plays her part with the energy of a human spring, while the taller Valdes plays the oaf. The “dance” moves they use to approach the Prince are indescribably hilarious.

Playing their father, Don Magnifico, baritone Carlos Chausson is a Rossini master, investing his portrayal with every gag available. In the beginning, as he goes on about his troublesome daughters (“They’re certainly a pair of gargoyles”), he’s even likeable. What he is most magnifico at are the patter numbers. Perhaps it’s the supersonic tempi employed by conductor Jesus Lopez-Cobos, but I had never noticed how unceasingly rapid is Cenerentola’s score.

Efrain Solis as Dandini, Rene Barbera as Don Ramiro.
Relative newcomer (and SFO Adler fellow) Efrain Solis does a lovely job with the baritone role of Dandini, the Prince’s valet, who tests the daughters’ character by pretending to be the Prince. He makes the most of Dandini’s enjoyment of this flip-flop, and with his wig, moustache and purple suit resembles a young Eric Idle. Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn lends a quiet nobility to Alidoro, the mysterious philosopher who takes the place of the standard fairy godmother.

The vocal fireworks come largely from our charming Prince, Don Ramiro, tenor Rene Barbera, who showed some telling sparks in the first act, then opened the second by tearing down the house with the electric cadenzas of “Si, ritrovarla io guiro.” (A handy bonus is Barbera’s relative resemblance to his “double,” Solis.) An alumnus of SFO’s Merola Opera Program, Barbera is making his company debut with this role. I say, bring him back as often as possible.

Karine Deshayes as Angelina.
Mezzo Karine Deshayes is just as able, and agile, in her vocal turns as Angelina (Cenerentola, Cinderella), displaying robust top notes and navigating the finale of finales, “Non piu mesta” (originally drafted for Almaviva in Barber) with aplomb. She played the part with an understated charm, with one flaw. Surrounded by such young performers, and constant references to her character’s “bright-eyed innocence,” Deshayes might be too old to be playing a teenager. Opera gives a broad leeway on this matter (note the roles that Domingo has played over the years), but in this context, at least, I found it distracting.

Jean-Piere Ponnelle's second-act set. Photos by Cory Weaver.
Sometimes you can judge a performance by what comes through in the story, and what this production reveals is an Enlightenment idea that originated in Athens, was furthered by Jesus of Nazareth, inspired the founding of the United States, and found brilliant expression in Il Barbieri: the notion that one’s worth derives from one’s qualities and actions, and not from one’s birth. What’s even more satisfying is that Rossini and Ferretti deliver this serious, radical concept beneath a pile of laughter.

Angelina’s ball gown was a stunning black number with constellations of diamonds. The many courtiers of the men’s chorus dressed in 19th-century tuxedos and fox-hunting suits, while the principals stuck to the leggings and waistcoats of the 18th. The chorus was pivotal to the comedy, adding an epic size to the chases, food fights and freeze-frames. I always feel like composer and librettist could have mined more laughter from the bracelet-search (a substitute for the usual glass slipper) but that’s probably due to my fondness for Sondheim’s gruesome, crazily funny treatment in “Into the Woods.”

Through November 26, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $25-$370, 415/864-3330,

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of the best-selling ebook The Popcorn Girl, which is free today (November 19) on Amazon Kindle.

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