New Zealand Opera’s sparkling production of La cenerentola

Opera Review

La cenerentola 

New Zealand Opera 

Conductor Wyn Davies

Director Lindy Hume

Soloists

With The Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus (Wellington) and Orchestra Wellington

St James Theatre Wellington 9 May 2015

The season continues at the ASB Theatre

Aotea Centre Auckland 

30 May – 7 June 2015 

with The Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus (Auckland) and the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra 

Reviewed by Garth Wilshere for
New Zealand Opera News and
www.garthsreviews.net.nz

This incredibly polished opening night of an opera was an absolute delight from its very beginning, with its wonderful monumental, grand house, palace library bookcase images topped by paintings of English monarchs as overture curtain.

As a magical embellished tome propels to the floor from a shelf, and Alidoro opens the pages to where the fairy tale is written, Orchestra Wellington, in sparkling form under music director Wyn Davies, plays the well-known overture, the scene is well and truly set.

Rossini’s 1817 version and setting of the Cinderella fairy tale, based on Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon, to a libretto by Jacopo Ferretti is a wonderful opera of its time, with brilliant bel canto musical elements and comedic opera buffa, and a rags to riches love story. All acted out to a backdrop of wealth and venal greed where the good, pure and forgiving nature of Angelina triumphs over the unpleasant and nasty behaviour of her step-family, who at the end, in her generous nature, she forgives.

This New Zealand Opera co-production with Opera Queensland under the sure hand of director Lindy Hume sizzles with energy and with a superbly even ensemble cast and chorus, presents bel canto and opera buffa at its very best.

Not a foot is put wrong in this presentation. Hume assures that every nuance is revealed in seamless fashion, her setting in Victorian London works so well, but the hilarious touches (and there are many) are never overplayed.

This curtain rises to reveal The Don Magnifico Emporium, a marvelous Victorian-era shop of wonder and curiosities, jam-packed with stock.  The individual detail of this set and the properties in it is phenomenal. Shelves and display windows are stacked with goodies and a counter full of delights. On top of the counter is a miniature, lighted, spinning carousel for instance.

Evoking Dickensian Britain in all of its guises, the male chorus of twelve, depicting a cross-section of some of the seedier characters as they roam outside the emporium, instantly convey a story.

Coming down the stairs into his shop we encounter Don Magnifico himself early in the morning, attended by his fawning daughters, who preen to get his attention, all of whom put upon and demand attention to their needs from the lowly, downtrodden maid Angelina (Cenerentola, Cinderella).

The main two-storied set bursting with colour and detail is versatile as it opens up rather like a book and is probably one of the production designer Dan Potra’s finest. It is beautifully lit by lighting designer Matthew Marshall, creating a magical atmosphere with wit and drama, and added lighting effects as required in every scene. 

Later an outdoor perspective of manicured lawns and trees leading to the palace in the background with chorus having laid out the grass and positioned the trees, is an amazing piece of stage design; the simplicity and elegance of this imagery is breath-taking to behold. There are just so many touches of genius in the designs for this production. Each scene drawing gasps of admiration from the audience. Potra has a magic, imaginative, innovative touch. And the bold, extravagant, colourful, eye-catching costumes brilliantly mirror each of the characters, and this is an opera full of characters and personality, with acting and individual characterisations of the highest order. The sheer theatricality is constantly engaging in a true ensemble cast, and I haven’t even got to the musical values yet!

Hume’s production is very lively, bustling and busy, full of energy and movement and a key part of that is the male chorus. Apart from their movement, superbly exciting, nuanced and sturdy singing, they also effect many of the set and prop changes, all enhanced by Taiaroa Royal’s stylised choreography. Every move is crisply executed and hilariously witty, especially when the elegantly attired footmen and attendants, move in unison so that not a moment is missed as the production bubbles along. And with their stunningly strong, precise singing Chorus Director, Michael Vinten’s NZOPERA Freemason’s Chorus threaten to upstage even when not the centre of attention, which being true to ensemble they don’t. They are superb in their singing and their many character guises. Much hilarity is garnered by the fact that in sort of steam-punk style four of them, beards and all, play woman and straight-faced they are very funny, as the 400-plus school pupils who attended the general dress rehearsal will attest, their enjoyment, responses and laughter was almost deafening at times. I doubt that their performance could be bettered anywhere.

Leading the musical side of the production Davies’ leadership and momentum propels the piece along. Orchestra Wellington’s playing delighting in a lightness of touch, which captures all of the effervescence, tonal colour and musical details in Rossini’s score. With strongly musical continuo playing from David Kelly all the recitatives zip along, enhanced by the excellent diction and enunciation of all the principal singers.

The musical values are high and the high-octane Cinderella dream sequence and the raging storm music with special effects are brilliantly realised; powerful and exhilarating, with the visuals of the chorus under rain and umbrellas battling the elements as they are blown, staggering across the stage, another example of the attention to detail.

This is a production that fair fizzes along.

Rossini puts huge demands on the singers and each of the seven principal cast members have the technique and stamina required in spades.

The most recent production I have seen of La cenerentola from the Metropolitan Opera in New York starred the incomparable doyenne of Rossini roles, Joyce DiDonato, but here this NZ Opera co-production with the wonderful, captivating New Zealander Sarah Castle is excellent in the title role and the strong ensemble cast in no ways pales in comparison. In fact for many of the other roles I preferred this NZ production cast which would superbly grace any stage in the world (and in fact we have just learned that the production itself is shortly to go to Leipzig Opera). Truly a world-class production! 

I don’t think that I have ever heard here such effortless ability across them all in technique and coloratura.

The many duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets and septets are dashed off with ease and they musically soar in seamless and effortless fashion. Their singing is simply dazzling in its musicality and quality, and I include the male chorus in this praise.

Sarah Castle’s demeanour epitomises the downtrodden fragility of Angelina (Cenerentola) to start, but with enough feisty spikiness to make her role complete. She is totally believable and convincing and inhabits her put-upon character with grace and poise and rises to the challenge with her glorious singing as she meets her prince and her character develops.

And her singing throughout is simply sensational, her mezzo voice beautifully rich, elegant and mellifluous and every run, embellishment and florid bel canto phrase was pitch perfect. Her total security and assurance across all of her arias and in the ensembles was amazing and her final top note was thrilling; a fantastic touch of icing on the cake!

In her first encounter with the Prince (Ramiro in disguise as a valet) the attraction is instantly palpable.

With convincing acting, tenor Canadian John Tessier uses his lovely fluid voice, with bright elegance and lovely phrasing ideally, his tone and easy flexibility in his runs, beautifully managed. The valet Dandini (Marcin Bronikowski) in disguise as the Prince, arrives at the emporium with a display of Union Jack bunting and the chorus waving flags, to issue invitations to the ball.

Bronikowski with his strong baritone and intelligent singing matches and blends well with the other singers and the exchanges and interplay in the cross-over roles between prince and valet, add to the knock-about humour. The ways in which prince and valet changed their demeanour between each incarnation was very well done.

In Rossini’s version of the story there is no fairy godmother but a magical and mysterious, almost conjurer Alidoro, the prince’s tutor who enters in disguise as a beggar spurned by the sisters, but treated kindly by Angelina. It is he who brings about the magical transformations.

Bass-baritone Ashraf Sewailam (who had sung Alidoro in English in Brisbane) owns the role as he sweeps around the stage exuding gravitas in his magnificent purple cape and top hat.

He so impressed as Sparafucile in Rigoletto when he was last here, and it is a joy to have him back in this signature role. And he has presence on stage with a voice to match. I can’t envisage or imagine anyone better for this role.

And now the major comic trio of this tale and of this operatic version; the step-father Don Magnifico (Australian baritone Andrew Collis) and the (ugly) step-sisters Clorinda (Amelia Berry) and Tisbe (Rachelle Pike).

Here is the core of humour as these petulant, vain sisters preen and pout, constantly checking themselves in the mirror, each desperate to upstage the other, demanding attention from Cinderella while cruelly putting her down. In outrageous screaming red-haired wigs, big colourful gowns which they swish around in, bumping into each other as they fumble and strut and push for notice. Each singer has perfect comic timing, great theatrical instincts and ability, and superb singing as they bumptiously swish and stomp around, pushing Cinderella out of their way. The way that Hume has deployed these three characters is a masterstroke in comedy playing, almost caricatures but with enough humanity along with the greed at a potential marriage for a daughter to a prince, to make them believable.

And then we add the masterful, droll portrayal by Collis of Magnifico.

An overweight, grubby, seedy, opportunist who likes his wine while having, like his daughters, delusions of grandeur and importance.

His truly buffo portrayal is magnificent. He seems for me to have channeled Stephen Fry in the Hobbit movies with a touch of Timothy Spall to make for his own distinctive portrayal, with even, excellent, sturdy singing where all of the vocal and physical mannerisms and quirks add to the character, matched with the brilliant theatricality and superb singing. He too was perfection in casting. (And like Sewailam had sung his role in Brisbane.)

At the palace as he is fêted, and his daughters cavort extravagantly, he is offered wine, and miraculously shelves of the library bookcase backdrop open to reveal a cellar full of wine selections for him to sample. Topically New Zealand wine and Cloudy Bay and Kumeu are mentioned in the surtitles, to much chortling of recognition from the audience!

It was pleasing to see that three New Zealand singers acquitted themselves so outstandingly well in international company.

What constantly impressed throughout was the evenness of the casting and how well everyone matched and worked together; the tongue-twisting ensembles and vocal exchanges with the effervescent music were thrilling in their vocal display. 

This music is difficult and that they all made it seem so natural, effortless and easy belied that fact it is hard and demanding, and this comfortable musical ease was what made this presentation stand out.

This being a comic opera, but with serious messages and overtones about tolerance, is a great and approachable piece to introduce people to opera, with its great tuneful music, a well-known recognisable and understandable story of dreams, aspirations and good triumphing.

Audiences should flock to this as word-of-mouth, noting its excellence, spreads. A simply superb, outstanding production, one of NZ Opera’s very best, and certainly its best comedy. 

Don’t hesitate, but rush to the box office and make your booking now as this is a not-to-be missed operatic and theatrical experience. 

This NZ Opera presentation deserves to be a total sell-out.