Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cinderella story

Abigail Fischer
© Ron Lindsey, 2011
All rights reserved.
Who: Union Avenue Opera
What: La Cenerentola
When: July 29 through August 7, 2011
Where: Union Avenue Christian Church

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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 he was supposed to set was rejected by the Papal Censor. By way of contrast, mezzo Abigail Fischer spent months learning the elaborate flourishes of the title role for the current Union Avenue Opera production.

In both cases, it was time well spent. 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”, while Ms. Fischer’s performance is pure brilliance — as is that of everyone else in this remarkable cast.

The role of Cenerentola is something of a rarity — a leading coloratura part written for a contralto — but Ms. Fischer sounded completely comfortable with both its range and ornamentation. She has power and flexibility to burn and respectable acting chops as well — a fine performance all the way around.

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 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.

Bass Adam Fry gives us a delightfully pompous and brilliantly sung Don Magnifico, while bass Kenneth Mattice is all wry amusement as Dandini. Their second-act duet is a classic combination of physical and vocal comedy. Baritone E. Scott Levin has less interesting material to work with as Alidoro — the character is essentially a saintly fellow who delivers the libretto’s explicitly Christian message about the last being first — but he makes the most of it. It’s a fine performance, sung with complete conviction.

Tenor Keith Boyer is also completely invested in the role of Prince Ramiro, whether he’s mooning over Cenerentola or engaging in byplay with Dandini. He’s got a good, clear but not overpowering voice that serves him well.

Soprano Gina Galati and mezzo Kara Cornell are Cenerentola’s stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe. In this version of the story they’re not so much wicked as foolish, superficial, and terminally self-involved. Both singers get the characters’ comic bitchiness just right and, along with their fellow cast members, navigate the elaborate score with ease.

For this small-scale production, Rossini’s chorus has been reduced to a trio of courtiers sung by Anthony Heinemann, Nathan Ruggles, and Joshua J. Stanton. All three are nicely delineated characters and their voices blend well.

That said, this Cenerentola is not without its issues. Patrick Huber’s set is a bit Spartan, to begin with, so that even the palace seemed threadbare. It also has, I think, too many levels and stairs for the available space, which cuts down on the usable playing areas. Many scenes are shoved off to platforms on the extreme left and right where viewing angles and acoustics are less than ideal, and actors are often left with no sensible way to relate to each other physically.

Given the physical constraints of the set, stage director and Union Avenue Opera Principal Director Jolly Stewart creates decent stage pictures and — unlike so many directors of comic opera — understands that her performers don’t need to be in constant motion to be interesting. Sometimes we just need to be able to enjoy the scintillating music.

Conductor Elizabeth Hastings does a respectable job with the score, but on opening night some of the playing was a bit scrappy, the big ensemble numbers did not always sound as tight as they should have, and the tempo for the famous overture was rather on the stodgy side. The lack of a percussion section also makes the overall sound a bit anemic to my ears, lacking that punch that is so much a part of the Rossini sound.

Still, when all is said and done, Union Avenue Opera has produced another winner in La Cenerentola. The evening, small flaws aside, is beautifully sung, smartly acted, and tremendously entertaining. This is not an opera that comes around often — the last local performance was by Opera Theatre back in 1987 — so it’s definitely worth your time.

La Cenerentola runs through August 7 at the Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union at Enright in the Central West End. The opera is sung in Italian with projected English titles that are easily visible throughout the theatre. If the relatively light attendance on opening night is any indication, there should still be good seats available for the remaining performances. For more information, you may visit

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