La Cenerentola

Gioachino Rossini
Welsh National Opera
New Theatre, Oxford
to

No fairy godmother, no ball scene, no pumpkin. Rossini couldn't rely on the stage machinery at the Rome theatre to produce the necessary illusions for his latest opera. No glass slippers either, as the Papal authorities were sure to run scared from the sight of a naked female foot. You know what cardinals are.

At the end, his Cinderella forgives her horrid family in the tradition of sentimental drama. Yet the composer still described the piece as dramma giocoso—a farce—and that was very much the approach of Spanish director Joan Font and his designer Joan Guillen in this funny, revived 2007 production.

We are very much in fairy-tale territory here—or rather the dream of a fairy-tale—with picture-book costumes and scurrying mice. And with sparkling performances from singers and orchestra, and constant invention on stage, the magic is still there.

The piece was written less than a year after the triumph of The Barber of Seville and has similarities qua Figaro—Cenerentola here, Cenerentola there—but depends on having a leading lady with the necessary vocal depth and agility.

The Irish mezzo Tara Erraught is ideally cast, and has the personality too to win hearts, the humble kitchen-maid with impossible dreams as she sweeps cinders at the start, liberated in spirit and in the free vocal line at the end.

There is a hesitating tenderness at the first meeting with Matteo Macchioni's prince, a kind-hearted but truly aristocratic chap who doesn't know the business end of a broom.

Amid the slapstick and pastiche, it would be easy to overlook the brilliance that the role demands. Macchioni has a sweet, light tone, reminiscent of Juan Diego Florez, and in act two he flies aerobatically through the difficult three-part recitative and aria to those frequent high Cs.

There is a noble elegance in the singing, exaggerated to comic effect by Giorgio Cauduro as his valet Dandini, whose liberties and florid lines send cascades up and down the spines of Cinders's sisters, while Fabio Capitanucci as their father Don Magnifico has that pompous intolerance of one magnifico only in his own invention.

The sisters Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe are not in fact ugly—just vain, stupid, and without the dress sense to shop at Marks and Spencer. They act and look, in their blancmange frocks, like marionette versions of Marge Simpson—perfect foils for our homely heroine.

The six voices blend superbly in the great sextets that climax both acts, passages of which sound deceptively as if they might have been written for the cutely-costumed mice that cavort around the stage.

The musical direction is tight, slightly shortening the long first act and substituting Rossini’s later revision for rather tedious passages written in haste by an assistant, and that the ensembles are hold together so well is due to the excellent and expressive conductor Tomaš Hanus. The precision and crispness of the orchestra evident in the overture remains at an outstandingly high level throughout Rossini's tripping score.

Colin Davison