OPERA - ROSSINI - LA CENERENTOLA
|Once upon a time, lets say
late in 1816, a composer, lets call him Gioacchino Rossini, hated
fairy-stories but, to avoid the Papal censors and fulfil a contract,
agreed to rework the fable of the poor girl who marries a prince,
without supernatural intervention.
Bonaparte had been beaten the year before and liberal ideas were as welcome around Rome as a Mullah on a flight-deck over Manhattan is today. In context, Rossini’s choice of Cinderella was lighthearted but not trivial. Her natural nobility subverted the divine right of kings as much as the idea of commoners supposing themselves to be monarchs mocked Napoleon’s family court. Virtue rewarded played on religious sentimentality to such a degree as to be beyond belief.
Above all, Rossini’s score defied the mood of black reaction. His inability to be dull still sets audiences humming, as it does at the current production from Opera Queensland.
La Cenerentola had topped the Rossini pops until the extinction of coloratura contraltos for the title role. Donna Balson reaches her contralto range as readily as she adorns her mezzo. She uses those vocal ornaments to establish changes in character. As the put-upon servant, the adornments suggest trepidation, but by the time she is to marry her charming prince, her florid passages are soaring to magnanimous majesty. Between times, they undercut her family’s falsehoods. Balson’s acting and appearance enrich her musical and comic capacities to inscribe virtuosity above virtue.
The vulgar sisters chirp as their bird-brain parts required, but equally take flight when the score requires that they revel in the joys they derive from their awfulness. Emily Whelan and Dimity Shepherd earned for their characters all the grace that their step-sister bestows.
La Cenerentola calls for three styles of bass – four if you include Cinders. Indeed, Balson stayed lower longer than the men. To portray her wicked stepfather, Don Magnifico, as an arrogant drunk, Gary Rowley, projects, as singer and actor, both the buffo and profundo strengths of his bass. Any firmness shed at speed returns when he displays fury.
The too carefree characterisation that Jason Barry-Smith (Dandini) gave to a valet pretending to be a prince drew him into vocal rapids where he is out of his depth. Ian Cousins’s acting experience allows for an authoritative presence as the prince’s tutor and master-of- comedies. The prince, Kanen Breen, holds his tenor within its accomplishments.
For all the pearl-like arias and diamond duets in La Cenerentola, its crowning jewels are the ensembles where qualities from all seven principals combine to lift each other to greater splendours. Even in smaller groupings, they out sing the all-male chorus, many of whom imitate Dandini is rising above their station.
Conductor Simon Kenway sustains the singers without diminishing the vigour of Rossini’s orchestration. The woodwinds develop delights in the score while the brass never falter and the strings supply a surfeit of sensations, culminating in the storm scene.
Director Roger Hodgman offers a sleek interpretation with sufficient stage business to amuse but never to distract. The madcap chase through the prince-Dandini duet exemplifies this balancing act.
In developing a production for eight one-night stands from the Gold Coast to Cairns, designer Bill Haycock has provided a basically white set which allows for ingenuity within simple structures. The effectiveness is enhanced by the coloured lighting from Matt Scott. Contrasting costumes, also by Haycock, exemplify the artificial emotions and fake social status at the heartlessness of La Cenerentola.
The translation of the recitatives by associate conductor for the tour, Narelle French, is topical and suave. The sung parts remain in the Italian that supplied Rossini with so many of his comic effects, such as the rolled “r’s” realised here to perfection, as is all the patter.
La Cenerentola is one of three main-stage productions from Opera Queensland this year, adding to evidence that Brisbane is gathering the talents and institutions to reach the critical mass required to give out more creativity than it takes in. The world is likely to appreciate this flowering before the rest of Australia wakes up to the fact that Joh is no longer premier.
In discussing La Cenerentola, the novelist Stendhal deplored “the five or six hundred musical comedies dealing with the foiled expectations of snobs and braggarts” whose appearance in real life sent him “scuttling out the back-door”. This distaste melted before the wit flooding from orchestral pit and stage. How unhappy are the few, concluded Stendhal, “who can be moved by nothing less impressive than the Michelangelo frescoes”.