Friday, January 27, 2017

Review: Flaws and all, Winter Opera's "La Cenerentola" is good fun

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Rossini's romantic comedy La Cenerentola, based in part on the classic fairy tale Cinderella, was your prototypical rush job. He threw it together in three weeks at the end of 1816 when the libretto for the opera he was originally supposed to write (on a completely different subject) was rejected by the Papal Censor. Bits of the opera (notably the overture) were recycled from earlier works and some of the music was composed not by Rossini but by his collaborator Luca Agolini.

L-R: Sharon Sullivan, Robin Bradley, Andrew Potter,
Joseph Ryan, Isaac Frishman
Photo: Wade Brothers Productions
Still, as the production Winter Opera is presenting this Friday and Sunday (January 27 and 29) demonstrates, it holds up pretty well. The score is a charming cornucopia of elaborate coloratura arias, rapid-fire patter songs, and the kind of layered ensembles that earned Rossini the nickname “Signor Crescendo.” Stage director Matthew Haney may be overly fond of cluttering up those ensembles with silly stylized movement that is almost (but not quite) choreography, but even so the good humor of Rossini's music and Jacopo Ferretti's libretto remain intact.

The role of Angelina (a.k.a. Cenerentola) is something of a rarity-a leading coloratura part written for a contralto. Kate Tombaugh, who sings the role here, is a mezzo but sounded quite at ease with the part's tessitura when I saw her at the final dress rehearsal Wednesday night. Combined with her capable acting, that higher voice gave the character an engagingly naïve charm that contrasted nicely with the acidic brattiness of her stepsisters. I thought she sounded a bit less comfortable with the role's coloratura side, however. Her big rondo finale ("Nacqui all'affanno ... Non più mesta") lacked the vocal fireworks I would have expected.

Rossini was generous to the lower male voices as well, with choice roles for two basses and a baritone - the social-climbing stepfather Don Magnifico (the prototypical "buffo" clown of Italian comic opera), the Prince's wise tutor Alidoro (substituting for the fairy godmother because Rossini hated supernatural elements in opera), and the wily valet Dandini, who spends most of the opera masquerading as Prince Ramiro so the latter can get an unvarnished look at the Magnifico family.

Kate Tombaugh
Photo: Wade Brothers Productions
Winter Opera is blessed with three very strong performers in these key parts. Bass Andrew Potter's alcoholic pomposity is spot on, and he handles the role's more florid passages expertly, although at dress rehearsal he sometimes got out of synch with the orchestra. Baritone Joseph Ryan is equally strong vocally and makes the most of Dandini's droll observations.

Bass Nathan Resika turns in perhaps the most surprising performance, finding interesting shadings in what could be the fairly ordinary role of Alidoro. The character is essentially a saintly fellow who delivers the libretto's explicitly Christian message about the last being first, but Mr. Resika acting (and, more importantly, reacting) makes him more three-dimensional than one might expect.

Soprano Sharon Sullivan and mezzo Robin Bradley are Angelina's stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe. In this version of the story they're not so much wicked as foolish, superficial, and terminally self-involved. Their vocal and physical battles are appropriately funny stuff, and nicely sung.

Tenor Isaac Frishman is Prince Ramiro, hiding behind a pair of glasses, Clark Kent style, to separate the gold diggers from the real princess candidates. Angelina passes the test, of course, by falling for him even though she believes him to be only a servant, while he spends much of the opera being moonstruck by her. Mr. Frishman acts the part a bit blandly but sings beautifully, which is ultimately more important. His voice blends perfectly with Ms. Tomaugh's, which is also a bonus.

The male chorus, under the direction of Nancy Mayo, sings with power and precision even when they're marching around the stage and then falling down into a heap (which happens more often than necessary). This is not the first time I have been impressed with Ms. Mayo's work at Winter Opera, and I expect it won't be the last.

Conductor Kostis Protopapas conducts with a sure hand-although I would have liked somewhat more fleet tempi in the overture-and the small orchestra (fewer than 20 players) sounded quite polished, especially for a final dress. There was especially nice work by (among others) Chamber Project St. Louis members Jennifer Gartley and Dana Hotle on flute and clarinet, respectively, as well as Peg Bumb on bassoon and St. Louis Symphony Associate Principal Horn Thomas Jöstlein.

Joseph Ryan (center) and the company
Photo: Wade Brothers Productions
Scenic Designer Scott Loebl and Costume Designer JC Krajicek have created a bright, colorful, fairy-tale world for Cenerentola, lit dramatically (if sometimes a bit obtrusively) by Maureen Berry. And while Mr. Haney's direction sometimes gilds the theatrical lily, as I noted earlier, for the most part it creates effective stage pictures and directs our focus where it needs to be.

Rossini's La Cenerentola isn't heard that often-it was last done in a somewhat stripped-down version by Union Avenue Opera in 2011—so this production is most welcome and a great deal of fun overall. Besides, Winter Opera remains one of the better practitioners of musical theatre in St. Louis. They also have the distinction of being the only one of our three opera companies to be working in a space that was actually built with an orchestra pit and music-friendly acoustics-a virtue not to be taken lightly.

Winter Opera's La Cenerentola will be performed Friday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m., January 27 and 29, at the Skip Viragh Center on the Chaminade campus on Lindbergh just north of Plaza Frontenac. The opera is sung in Italian with English supertitles. It's not especially long as operas go-around two and one-half hours, including intermission-and the bright comic action might make it a good choice for younger audience members as well as for adults. For more information: winteroperastl.org.

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