Cinderella (La Cenerentola)
Canadian Opera Company
Four Seasons Centre
In Toronto on Saturday
No one at the Canadian Opera Company, when this show was planned, could have guessed that the performances would coincide with the wedding of an English prince to a commoner. I'm pretty sure there's more fun in Rossini's La Cenerentola than there will be at the Windsors' explosion of pomp, even if some of the gags in this production are as subtle as a pratfall.
Rossini and his librettist Giacomo Ferretti wrote their ashes-to-throne comedy to such a tight deadline that Rossini had to subcontract a few arias to another composer (these were replaced after the premiere). They jettisoned the magic of Charles Perrault's original tale (their fairy godmother is a philosopher), ladled in lots of comedy about greed and ambition, and gave the humble Cinderella and her prince the kind of florid triumphalist music Rossini wrote for his tragic heroes.
Catalan director Joan Font has re-enchanted the story somewhat, enlisting six rats as physical comedians, and sending Cinderella off to the royal ball through a hearth that grows nearly as tall as the proscenium. It's a bit like Lucy going through the wardrobe to Narnia.
Font and designer Joan Guillen have also jacked up the clownishness, directing and dressing the greedy Don Magnifico and his two preferred daughters so broadly that actual clown noses would not have been a stretch. These three were the epicentre of a colour storm so intense, the show (which included lighting by Albert Faura) might have been designed by Cyndi Lauper.
Cenerentola is a demanding score, and the COC has cast it well. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong made a powerful showing in the title role, from the darkly coloured simplicity of the folk-like song of the first scene to the effortless, gleaming coloratura of her final aria. Tenor Lawrence Brownlee, who spent most of the show masquerading as his own valet, brought a compact warm sound and intelligent phrasing to the role of Don Ramiro, especially in his ardent showpiece number in Act 2. The lovers didn't show much real affinity in their first carefully-sung meeting, unfortunately, with no help from Font, who was better at funny business than at developing character through movement. The best thing he did with this earnest couple was to have Cinderella unceremoniously hand the disguised prince a broom to sweep up the cup she had just broken.
Brett Polegato commanded every scene he entered as the pretend-prince Dandini, relishing his phony authority and wielding a baritone that made up in richness what it lacked in flexibility. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen made good work of that bore, Alidoro, though I wouldn't have minded, in this long show, losing the smug predictive aria the philosopher delivered just before the ball.
Bass Donato DiStefano (Don Magnifico), soprano Ileana Montalbetti (Clorinda) and mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb (Tisbe) functioned as well as anyone can when asked to be a walking cartoon, primping outrageously when Dandini sang of his instant infatuation with the sisters. The hollowness of these characters began to wear, however, as the show pounded away at them, losing some of its own heart in the process.
The COC chorus performed well in its few appearances, and their conical clown hats in the drinking scene provided a clue to the prevalence of cone shapes in Guillen's costume designs. Conductor Leonardo Vordoni made a very mixed showing with the COC Orchestra, accompanying well at times, swamping the singers at others, and letting Rossini's crisp dotted rhythms go soft far too often. Anne Larlee's watchful recitative accompaniments on fortepiano were excellent and often witty.
The rats were fun, some of the time, but they had an ugly habit of upstaging their singing colleagues. This opera is partly a contest of dreams, between Cenerentola's fantasy of marrying a prince for love and Don Magnifico's visions of wealth. The latter was fatally undermined when the rats ran riot through the Don's imaginative account of his future importance. I can't guess why Font and choreographer Xevi Dorca thought a display of rodent yoga would enhance the finale of Act I. Maybe they feared we'd be getting bored by that point. Som fears can be self-fulfilling.
The COC's performances of La Cenerentola (Cinderella) continue through May 25.