Review: Wit, whimsy, vocal fireworks make Lyric's 'Cinderella' soar
Lyric's 'Cinderella' combines color and fireworks
Joan Font's production of "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella") was such a resounding success at Houston Grand Opera in 2007 when it premiered during Anthony Freud's directorship that you can easily understand why he would want to revive this delightful take on Rossini's sparkling comedy for his first full season at Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Lyric's first "Cenerentola" of the season Sunday afternoon at the Civic Opera House, which marked the work's return to the local repertory after a decade, proved that Rossini lightning does strike twice, sometimes.
Fairy tales are supposed to be fantastical, of course, but the handful that have been turned into operas often are too Grimm and not nearly funny enough. This one reminds you how much wit and mirth lies in Rossini's masterful score, if only stage directors like Font know how to bring it to the surface. Besides brimming with mirth from beginning to end, this "Cinderella" surrounds its main characters and their florid vocal fireworks with pure theatrical whimsy.
Singers and choristers are dressed in cartoonish costumes and beehive wigs that make fun of period fashion; the designs are drenched in exaggerated primary colors; and the stage is alive with elegantly choreographed movement. The disguised valet Dandini (Italian baritone Vito Priante) is wheeled into Don Magnifico's (Italian bass Alessandro Corbelli) household atop a white horse with two heads. The multi-colored costumes and beehive wigs worn by Cinderella's nasty stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, are beyond over-the-top.
All this comes courtesy of Els Comediants, director Font's theater collective from Barcelona, which created this co-production between Houston, Welsh National Opera and opera companies in Barcelona and Geneva. The troupe's theatrical ingenuity serves a splendid cast headed by American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, along with superior orchestral and choral work under Lyric music director Andrew Davis.
Forget Disney, forget Rodgers and Hammerstein. In this sly new take on the familiar fairy tale, everything we see on stage is Cinderella's fantasy. Abused by her venal stepfather and mean stepsisters, our heroine, Angelina (Leonard), dreams of being whisked away from her shabby life of domestic servitude by a kindly fairy godfather, Alidoro (American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn) and into the arms of a handsome prince, Don Ramiro (Brownlee).
And since this "Cinderella" is an elaborate amalgam of surreal dream and sober reality, the singers, dancers, conductor, orchestra and chorus must walk a tightrope between childlike naivete and adult sophistication. They all do so marvelously, thanks to the deftness with which Font orchestrates the action and the clarity, rhythmic verve and buoyancy Davis brings to his first "Cenerentola," a few ragged orchestral entrances notwithstanding.
Did I mention the sextet of human-sized rats? These adorable rodents serve various functions as confidants, stagehands and onlookers, their scurrying cleverly synchronized with the music to which it provides nifty visual counterpoint. With their cone-shaped snouts and large pink tails, the cartoon rats are great fun to watch and nimbly fill the dramatic black holes in the action. The costumes and clean-lined unit set were designed by Joan Guillen, the choreography by Xevi Dorca, with fluid lighting by Albert Faura that spirits the audience between Don Magnifico's sparse abode and the opulent palace of the prince.
With Leonard and Brownlee, two of today's finest young Rossini singers, as the scullery-maid-turned-royal-bride and the prince who instantly adores her, the show's visual delights found their ideal vocal complement.
Leonard, so appealing as Rosina in Lyric's 2013-14 Rossini "Barber of Seville," was even more appealing as Angelina. The mezzo has the vocal and physical beauty, the natural stage charisma, the sure dramatic instincts, to win all hearts from the outset. She also commands the coloratura agility, flexibility and precision to satisfy the role's stiff technical demands and graceful bel canto lines.
Rossini does his rags-to-riches heroine no favors by placing her florid showpiece, "Non piu mesta," at the end of a long, vocally taxing opera. But Leonard sailed through the tricky roulades, runs and other embellishments with grace and aplomb, making Angelina's joy at being united with her prince palpable in every ornate flourish.
Brownlee also scored a triumph in this, his belated Lyric debut. Like Leonard, he has real stage presence and he sings Rossini as to the manner born. His light lyric tenor, bright of timbre and absolutely secure in his dizzying flights into the coloratura heavens, shone in the capstone Act 2 aria in which Ramiro launches his search for the unknown beauty (Angelina, of course) he met at the ball. How many tenors have you heard who can nail high Cs, and above, without resorting to falsetto? Brownlee can, and did so resplendently, bringing down the house.
Priante, another Lyric debut, displayed a full, admirable Rossini baritone and choice comedic moves as he flounced his way through Dandini's foppish masquerade. The veteran buffo bass Corbelli missed not a trick, vocally or histrionically, in his idiomatic portrayal of the grasping Magnifico. Soprano Diana Newman and mezzo Annie Rosen, first-year Ryan Opera Center members of bright promise, had a ball with the comic shtick the director gave the silly stepsisters. Van Horn brought due agility and thrust to Alidoro's wide-ranging aria.
The male choristers, prepared by chorus master Michael Black, managed to sing well and bring off their soft-shoe routines at the same time. Numerous minor cuts were observed, bringing the show in at 3 ¼ hours, with one intermission. Together with Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," comedy rules the Ardis Krainik Theatre throughout this opening month of the Lyric season.