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A Fairy-Tale Cinderella

July 17, 2007

Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola is a brilliant comic opera filled with both melancholy and satire. La Cenerentola is also a fairy-tale girl who bursts into the spotlight. And for San Francisco right now, Daniela Mack has become the Cinderella girl with the glass slippers. Never mind that when Rossini modernized Charles Perrault’s old version for his libretto, those slippers became matching bracelets. Mack, the vocal princess, is pure sparkle.
San Francisco has heard the greatest singers in this jewel of a coloratura mezzo-soprano role (Berganza, von Stade, Borodina). Mack is young and her voice is still emerging, but the velvet integration of her vocal registers and her amazing fluency in ornamentation are enough to make crystal-ball gazers predict future greatness.

She managed the gentle sadness of her opening melody — a kind of folk song that echoes throughout the score — with an understated texture that wove the velvet from silk. Yet she dashed off the furious coloratura, such as when Cinderella bursts out a moment later in anger at her stepsisters for their cruel treatment of a beggar. She could be charming in her naive love of the prince, yet she could discharge with authority the florid summits of mezzo singing that close each of the two acts. I can well imagine that she will join the roster of famous alums of the Merola Opera Program.
A Warm Emotional Center
I will confess, in the past, to having found this masterful opera cold and ruthlessly satiric in spite of the sentimental story at its core. The dazzling ensembles and the grand formal arias from the heroine, so admirable in their technical virtuosity, can seem brittle. And the satiric treatment of that nasty trio of stepfather (not the stepmother in Rossini’s updated version) and two stepsisters remains so bitter that even Cinderella’s purely motivated forgiveness in the final scenes fails to convince. Cinderella has a heart. But does La Cenerentola?

This unpretentious production, seen on Sunday in San Francisco at Fort Mason's intimate Cowell Theater, was full of the vigor of young, highly accomplished singers and went far toward changing my view. Again and again, I found myself both dazzled by the music and touched by the emotions. The work's formality was balanced with its feelings thanks to the superb singing of a hero and heroine the same age as the characters they portray.

Erik Flatmo's plain settings featured a receding framework of pillars and roof joists, and opposing doors downstage for the many sudden entries and exits. A trio of triangular pavilions presented shifting faces to the audience, decorated with enlargements of black-and-white photos: a family portrait with the heroine scratched out, chandeliers for the ball, a chateau and garden statuary to open Act 2. Sharp liveries and military uniforms by Kathleen Lussier-West contrasted with silk dresses to project a sense of Rossini’s period.

Jose Maria Condemi’s direction often coordinated the action with the phrasing of the music, while throwing in quite a few slapstick antics and knowing glances to the audience along with plenty of chances for the singers to stand and deliver their fiercely challenging vocal lines. He let the personalities of the singers and their acting come through, while occasionally obtruding his own work. The excessive muss and fuss of the sisters during Cinderella’s haunting opening song was regrettable, as was the Prince’s out-of-character study of his face in a full-length mirror.

These excesses soon dissolved into an easy comic flow, and a slower pace after the rigid, breathtakingly fast tempos that conductor Martin Katz set in the beginning. Once things settled down, infelicities in the orchestra diminished and listeners could appreciate some of the lovely lead and solo passages, particularly from the clarinets, which so often echo Mozart in this opera. Indeed, Rossini constantly plays on Mozart. For instance, he references the Magic Flute when Alidoro tells Cinderella about the great Lord in the sky, and he nods at the wind band of Don Giovanni’s last scene as Dandini echoes Leparello and invites the guests to supper.
Standout Singers
Alek Shrader’s pleasant and flexible tenor, as well as his sincere acting, gave Cinderella a real prince charming. This is a treacherous role, jammed with elaborate figures. Schrader dashed them off gracefully, even on the highest of notes. With Mack, he set the pace for a marvelous cast working both vocally and dramatically to convey the inner life of this most intricate of music.

Paul La Rosa has the gifts of a gorgeous low-baritone voice and a charming stage presence. The show-off part of Dandini fits him like a glove. He is a delightful performer who with time may manage the florid passages more integrally. Sam Handley turned the father, Don Magnifico, into a nicer man than the libretto actually allows. Matthew Moore’s smooth baritone made his Alidoro a fitting secular substitute for the old-fashioned fairy godmother. The sisters, Ani Maldjian and Daveda Karanas, enjoyed their stage antics and tossed off fine vocalism at every turn.

San Francisco’s many blessings include the Merola Program and its summer productions, so many of which have proven truly memorable. Our blessings would expand if the San Francisco Opera’s new director would restore the spring workshop productions staged with Adler Fellows. They are sorely missed.

John Bender is professor of English and comparative literature at Stanford University. He has reviewed the San Francisco Opera for Opera Canada for several years.