Witty, wonderful and as utterly charming as a fairy tale opera should be, WNO’s Cinderella () is everything last season’s Magic Flute wasn’t. Why? Because Flute was dragged into a crassly accessible now, whereas Cinderella stands firmly and unapologetically in her own uncompromising then.
This is true despite the modernist visuals, a contrast between brightly colorful Seussian costumes and the greys of a minimalist set, because what remains perfectly and wonderfully untouched are the opera’s sensibilities. It is as quaint, silly and delightfully romantic as a tiny hat on top of an enormous 18th century ladies’ wig — just as it should be.
And, left unadulterated, this production is an ideal opera for the uninitiated. Yes, some will balk at the absurdities, others may yawn at the harpsichord, and a few will be flummoxed by Rossini’s vocal acrobatics, but far more will discover that opera can be enthrallingly entertaining. Not just because the Cinderella story is familiar and accessible (though that certainly helps), but because this production tells a clear and compelling story with such a joyous mood and irreverent humor that it seems completely natural that it is set to a classical score and sung with classical voices. It is a gently-offered hand into the world of opera with a voice that says “This is who I am. If you can accept me, there is so much more to know and love!”
At the heart of this opera is of course the romance between the prince, Don Ramiro, who discovers and falls for the servant girl Angelina. Though there is no fairy godmother or glass slipper, there are matching bangles and the same happy realization that the prince’s instincts are right: he is attracted to the mysterious woman at the ball because she is Angelina. What works so well here is Director Joan Font’s cultivation of a compelling –- and often amusing — romantic tension; whether it’s the choreography of their first meeting or the moment when the bangles are re-united. He also ensures that his actors are free to give these characters personality, to breathe life into our stock ideas of Cinderella and Prince Charming.
The very picture of a far more self-assured and willful Angelina, Isabel Leonard looks like a 1960s Italian film star in mufti. With her rich and dusky mezzo-soprano, Leonard gives her young woman a gravitas and intensity that keeps her from ever being too much the sugary heroine. When Ramiro at last tells her “come rule with me,” it is easy to see the queen she will be.
Just as importantly, she makes for a good match with Ramiro, as played by Maxim Mironov. Exuding intelligence, humor and charm, yet easily reverting to the casual stateliness of a man born to lead, Mironov delivers a Ramiro who clearly and logically would desire this kind of Angelina. The fact that he sings the prince with a gorgeous ringing buoyancy couldn’t fit his persona better.
In apt complement to the tone of the romance here is the production’s approach to comedy. Walking a clever line between traditional buffo humor and something rather more rambunctious, Paolo Bordogna offers plenty of laughs and then sings with an expansive and pleasing tone. Upping the humor ante is a troupe of endearing mice who take quiet interest in the goings-on in between comically irreverent hijinks, some which almost steal the show.
Rounding out the cast is Simone Alberghini as Dandini, Ramiro’s trusted valet. A confident presence, Alberghini offers good chemistry with Mironov and brings vibrant energy to much of the action Dandini delivers. Alberghini is a tad heavy-handed in his Rossini but he expresses with an attractive power. As the two evil step-sisters, Jacqueline Echols (as Clorinda) and Deborah Nansteel (as Tisbe) sing with rich sweetness and precision and have fun with the sister’s antics. As Holy messenger Alidoro (in place of a fairy godmother), Shenyang makes for an impressive figure and sings with resonant authority.
Thus, the characters are lively, the voices lovely, the spirit fun, and all in flow with Rossini’s melodic and beautifully paced score. If you are ready to tap into something as entertaining as it is authentic, this is the glass slipper to try.
Cinderella runs to May 21. Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $25 to $300. Call 202-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
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