New Zealand Opera
Rossini: La Cenerentola, or La Bontä Trionfa (in Italian with English surtitles)
Directed by Lindy Hume, with Musical Director Wyn Davies, Orchestra Wellington, Freemasons NZ Opera Chorus (Wellington), soloists Sarah Castle, John Tessier, Marcin Bronikowski, Ashraf Sewailam, Andrew Collis, Amelia Berry, Rachelle Pike
St. James Theatre
Saturday 9 May 2015, 7.30pm
While writers may disagree concerning whether La Cenerentola (Cinderella) is a comic opera, there is no doubt that New Zealand Opera played it as such, with much humorous activity. Perhaps some of the symbolism and solemnity of this moral fairy tale was lost in the process, but the rich variety of visual and aural delights made for a thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. The version of the story used by Rossini’s librettist Jacopo Ferretti was certainly not as grim as that by the brothers Grimm. It was not until comparatively recently that this opera was seen as a masterpiece comparable to the composer’s The Barber of Seville and The Italian Girl in Algiers.
Gioacchino Rossini was indeed a precocious talent, as the title of the essay in the programme by Peter Bassett declares, having written numbers of operas while still in his teens. But not quite as precocious as the dates 1817-1868 shown above his portrait opposite the essay would indicate. 1817 was the date of the composition of Cenerentola. Not Rossini’s date of birth, which was 1792. The opera comes at the midpoint of Rossini’s opera-writing career: it was his nineteenth opera, and there were 19 to follow over the next decade, after which he wrote no more operas.
The Director’s decision to set the story in Dickensian London led to marvellously detailed and evocative sets from designer Dan Potra. The opening set, seen by the audience as background to various high-jinks during the overture, was a huge library, obviously in a great house. It returned at appropriate points through the story, doubling at one point as the wine cellar in the prince’s palace – when, as if magically, several book shelves transformed into wine-racks, liberally stocked with bottles, including (according to the ‘revised’ libretto shown in surtitles) Cloudy Bay! Above the highest shelves were portraits of past British monarchs; thus the audience was immediately informed of the locale.
Among the entertainments during the overture was the showing on a screen in a gilt frame of a series of portraits (photographs from the nineteenth century or early twentieth) of prospective brides for the prince, who is under pressure to get married.
The overture is one of the best-known parts of the opera, and its liveliness was rendered with proficiency by the orchestra, under the opera’s musical director, Wyn Davies. (Too often, including on radio, is it implied that he is there just to conduct the orchestra. Not at all; he directs all the musical aspects of the production, including all the singers.)
Rossini’s usual good humour and ability to entertain an audience were immediately in evidence. This joint production with Opera Queensland had much going for it, including not least a cast of principal singers who were uniformly of the highest standards, not excluding the two young New Zealanders as the step-sisters.
The scene transformed, through London fog, to a street view of Don Magnifco’s well-stocked emporium, where the opening duet from the step-sisters, Clorinda (Amelia Berry) and Tisbe (Rachelle Pike) takes place. At the beginning, they sounded occasionally unsure, but this was soon overcome, and was about the only vocal problem (and a minor one) in the entire performance.
As Angelina (Cinderella), Sarah Castle was immediately impressive, in her first aria: a song in a simple folk-like idiom, about a king who decides to marry an innocent, beautiful but poor young woman for her goodness, rather than marrying for rank, title or money. The subtitle of the opera means ‘Goodness Triumphant’.
Castle had the coloratura style required for Rossini’s florid writing to a ‘t’, and she and prince Don Ramiro (John Tessier) really lived the parts, as did the excellent Dandini (Marcin Bronikowski). This character in particular, resplendent in a red suit while he was posing as the prince, and the sisters also, were required in this production to overact, or shall we say act up for laughs; this they did fully. If at times this gave a vulgar tinge to the production, it obviously lived out Lindy Hume’s conception of these characters.
The many ensembles were excellent, disguising their considerable vocal difficulty.
The male chorus, through numbers of changes of costumes and roles, was energetic and well-voiced. Some of its members were dressed as women, though obviously being men, most sporting beards. This added variety not only to their appearance, but to the acting required. Their set pieces were splendid, not to mention the typical Rossini patter songs, which require such vocal, verbal and labial agility.
Andrew Collis sang and acted his part of Don Magnifico… well, magnificently. His movement, facial expressions and general deportment spoke of an older man, and one with ideas of improving his station in life. No wicked step-mother in this story, but a cruel and vain step-father.
Ashraf Sewailam as Alindoro was outstanding, both vocally and in characterisation. He had the right degree of magnanimous dignity, and his singing was a delight to hear. However, it did bother me that, as a dignified tutor, he wore his top hat too far back on his head – a symbol of a scoundrel, which he certainly was not. The hat should be worn squarely on the head (likewise the ‘lemon-squeezer’ military hat). But so often in dramatic productions (and at other times) one sees them perched towards the back of the head. (It was noteworthy that on Anzac Day Sir Jerry Mateparae wore his correctly.)
Costumes and props were numerous, colourful and appropriate, given the chosen setting. Although this version of the story involved bracelets rather than the glass slippers (or should it have been fur?) that we are accustomed to, at a suitable moment when Angelina was being robed for her wedding, Don Ramiro placed new slippers on her feet – a nice touch.
The show was beautifully lit, and there was opportunity for some extraordinary effects, including during a storm with lightning, the chorus the while waving its umbrellas, bedewed with visible raindrops.
This was certainly a production requiring much acting, and also dancing, a particularly amusing sequence being when the chorus danced at the prince’s palace, with suitable seriousness. The choreographer for this and other dance episodes was Taiaroa Royal. At this point I thought I felt a slight earthquake – and then the word, and the actions of people suffering from one came up in the opera (to excess, of course!). On consulting GeoNet later I found that there was a 3.4 quake west of New Plymouth at about the right time. Did I feel it, or was it precognition?
Two other scenarios were used: the spacious grounds of the prince’s palace, bedecked Capability Brown-style with ornamental trees, which proved useful both because they could be moved, and because characters could hide behind them. The perspective effect in this scene was beautifully achieved.
An unacknowledged keyboard player (perhaps Wyn Davies?) accompanied the recitatives that opened the second Act; meanwhile lots of stage business involved undressing and dressing Don Remiro as he sang a magnificent aria that included several wonderful high notes. In this instance, I did find the amount of acting by members of the chorus detracted from the impact of his beautiful singing.
The delightful sextet a little later is one of the high points of the opera, as the main characters amusingly roll their r’s, particularly in the word ‘gruppo’ (knot) which they utter numerous times to describe the tangled web of relationships and characters, particularly the transformation of the ‘valet’ into the prince, and vice versa, and the transformation of Angelina into the prince’s betrothed.
The final scene of the opera took place in front of and on the balcony of the prince’s palace. It appeared remarkably like the central section of the façade of Buckingham Palace. It was created by conveniently turning around Don Magnifico’s emporium.
Every effort was made to extract humour from the opera, but pathos and seriousness were not absent, particularly in Angelina’s role. The underlying themes of the exploitation of servants and the effects of the class system were not entirely lost. Sets and costumes alone were a feast for the eyes; the singing and orchestral playing made up a feast for the ears. Congratulations are due all round, not least to set-builders and costume-makers.
The season continues in Wellington on Tuesday 12 May at 6pm and Thursday 14 May and Saturday 16 May at 7.30pm. The Auckland season opens on 30 May.