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La Cenerentola: Giocoso, ma non troppo

Van Opera Fest leads with Rossini's witty fairy tale: bite and bel canto, minus the magic

Euphonious disharmony with a class warfare subtext. Photo: Tim Matheson

For those of us raised on the gauzy, wand-waving, Disneyfied movie of the Cinderella story, there’s something bracingly crisp about La Cenerentola, Gioachino Rossini’s operatic version of the archetypal fairytale, which led off this year’s Vancouver Opera (V.O.) Festival.

No glass slipper, no pumpkin carriage, no fairy godmother. Instead, we’re served up a wealth of memorable melody, dazzling bel canto, witty banter and physical comedy. The naturalistic (albeit lampoonish) characters are all-too-recognizably human, some 200 years after their creation – a finely etched social satire.

An etching aesthetic dominates the staging of the V.O. production ,with Sue Bonde’s gaudily ornate petits fours costumes standing out against the pallid, crosshatched backdrop of Daniel Meeker’s black-and-white sets. The stage is framed in a series of nested prosceniums, like a cardboard kiddie puppet theatre from some 19th century nursery.

The staging may be a U.S. import (recycled from the Portland Opera’s 2018 Cerentola), but the performing talent is almost entirely Canadian – young, vastly talented up-and-comers, all. Vancouver’s own Simone McIntosh, in the title role, evolves in the course of two acts from the soulfully chaste mezzo of her opening aria as a put-upon drudge, Una volta c’era un re, to her coloratura star turn as a magnanimous queen in her Non più mesta finale.

She’s framed by a gloriously dysfunctional family-from-hell. Cinderella’s Wicked Stepmother has here morphed into a pompous male pantalone in a show-stealing performance by V.O.’s favourite basso buffo Peter McGillivray(remember him from The Overcoat last year?).

The step-sisters, soprano Nicole Joanne Brooks and mezzo Gena van Oosten (both V.O. “Young Artists”) are perfectly matched in airhead asperity. A lot of their parts are in duet with each other, and their voices blend well in a kind of harpy harmony.

Another “Young Artist,” baritone Daniel Thielmann, gets to strut his stuff as an unctuous valet masquerading as his royal master so as to weed out social-climbing gold-diggers from the roster of queenly eligibles. The actual prince (tenor Charles Sy), a true son of Rossini’s own Early Romantic era, swears to choose a bride solely for her purity and kindness.

Such idealism jibes plausibly enough with Sy’s bell-clear tenor and Pooh Bear cuddliness. Then, too, the prince has a canny advance man: American bass-baritone Tyler Simpson as the royal tutor who scouts out the drudge-with-a-heart-of-gold, equips her with a spangly daiquiri-coloured ballgown and whisks her off to the palace in time for the grand ball. Not exactly a fairy godmother, but imbued with enough stage presence and vocal authority to take command of any scene he appears in.

Rossini, at the lift-off of his meteoric rise as the “it” stage composer of his generation, famously cobbled together La Cerentola in barely three weeks. To achieve such turn-around time, the 25-year-old maestro shamelessly cannibalized his own previous opus, regardless of genre, whether lightsome opera giocosa or portentous opera seria. He relied on his own melodic genius to hold the audience with his his purely abstract music, leaving it to the performers to inject appropriate emotional resonance.

Montreal director Rachel Peake (last seen at V.O. in 2017’s Marriage of Figaro) rises to the occasion , with impeccable stage blocking and timing, ably supported by a 19-member ensemble of V.O. musicians under the baton of the company’s associate conductor, Leslie Dala.  

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