Cher Public

Girl of the moment

cenerentola_coverIt took the Metropolitan Opera decades to catch up with the rest of the world and finally stage La Cenerentola. Gioachino Rossini’s opera buffa, one of his most beloved and accomplished works, received its belated Met debut in 1997, amidst legitimate suspicions that the new production was less a genuine desire to add a belcanto masterpiece to the company’s repertoire than a concession to Cecilia Bartoli’s demands.

Since then the production has been revived several times with galaxy of international mezzo-sopranos such as Jennifer Larmore, Sonia Ganassi, Olga Borodina and, just this past season, superstar Elina Garanca.

The Latvian mezzo-soprano has achieved a dizzying ascent to the highest echelons of operatic stardom in only a few years. She possesses all the ingredients the modern operatic world considers necessary to reach the A list: a pleasant voice, an even more pleasant stage presence, and a photogenic quality for glamorous CD covers. (An exclusive contract with a major recording company is arguably the single most important component).

Although Ms. Garanca introduced herself to the Met audience with Rosina and Cenerentola, I would not consider her a belcanto specialist. In general her coloratura is more than acceptable; however, my distinct feeling is that this repertoire is not like a second skin to her. She lacks the nonchalance and insouciance that a true belcantista wields when tackling those interminable florid musical figures.

The skill of true belcanto specialists is to make the audience believe they are doing acrobatics in mid air without a protective net. Obviously, they do have a net, their ironclad technique, but the audience is supposed to be sitting on the edge of their seats, mouths open in awe and suspense. In Miss Garanca’s approach to pyrotechnics I detect a certain sense of caution that slightly detracts from the feeling of utter elation one should experience at the end of such a tour-de-force as Angelina’s rondò.

My exacting standards are allowed only because we live in an age rich with true Rossini specialists. Not too long ago a performance like Ms. Garanca’s would have been considered flawless.

Overall, Ms. Garanca is an impressive Cenerentola, and even by today’s high standards her performance can ultimately be qualified as a success. Her voice is velvety and mellifluous. She sings tastefully and knows how to shape a phrase, with lovely portamentos and messe di voce, with an even, equalized production throughout her range.

Finally, she is breathtakingly beautiful. She is in fact perhaps too beautiful and regal as the rag-wearing Cenerentola, so that when she later appears in a magnificent evening gown, the contrast is not so striking and dramatic and as it should be.

Ms. Garanca is one of those magnetic artists who automatically galvanizes the audience’s attention, even more so on an HD video, which captures her stunning features, innate elegance and captivating smile in vivid detail. She is not the most humble and unostentatious Cenerentola I have seen; her supermodel looks may have something to do with that.

Her Prince Charming, on the contrary, does not cut a very romantic figure. As much as I would like to ignore it, there is no denying that tenor Lawrence Brownlee’s appeal is severely limited by a less than dashing physical appearance. His somewhat ungainly acting, confined to a few stock gestures, does not help.

His voice, one the other hand, is far from rigid and wooden. To say it plainly, Mr. Brownlee is a first class vocalist. He knows how to sing “sul fiato” producing a homogeneous sound from top to bottom, with no hint of the nasality that often characterizes this type of tenors. His high register is rich with overtones, full of squillo, his bottom sonorous and well supported.

His rendition of “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro” is illustrative of his skills; he is at ease both in the high parts, such as the cabaletta “Dolce speranza” with its exposed high Cs, as well as in the mid section, the Andantino “Pegno adorato e caro”, which, in contrast, lies quite low. Mr. Brownlee is, in a few words, a full lyric tenor gifted with a very wide range and a masterful command of coloratura.

Alessandro Corbelli, perhaps the leading Dandini of the ‘80s and ‘90s, is now singing Don Magnifico with the experience of a long career spent tackling much more virtuosistic roles. Unlike many buffos, he actually sings his part with a real, rich voice; he never speaks or barks his notes. The Italian baritone completely masters the art of rapid-fire patter, of which Rossini arguably wrote the most arduous example with the aria “Sia qualunque delle figlie”.

The role of Dandini is in my view the most difficult to cast. It requires either a buffo able to cope with very flowery singing, or a virtuoso with comic skills, and it’s no easy task to find both qualities, in exactly the same measures, in the same artist. And so, normally, opera companies tend to hire a buffo who will somehow survive all the agility. This Dandini, Simone Alberghini, seems to belong in the latter category. Although he is extremely effective on stage, Mr. Alberghini, whose voice is on the dry side to begin with, tends to aspirate, flatten or slide over the coloratura, and this does not work for me.

Neither am I enthusiastic about John Relyea. The Canadian bass’s instrument has noticeably deteriorated since the first time I heard him in this opera a decade ago, now sounding metallic and unwieldy. Alidoro’s role is virtually limited to one single but major aria; “Là del ciel nell’arcano profondo” is essentially an opera seria aria, with huge intervals, tricky high notes and intricate ornate writing, to which only belcanto masters of the caliber of Samuel Ramey or Michele Pertusi can do full justice.

The roles of the two stepsisters are thankless, with a lot of stage time and no chances to shine. Rachelle Durkin (Clorinda) and Patricia Risley, repeating their roles from the previous revival, are a comically smooth and well tried team. I would prefer a less acidulous sound from Clorinda, who, like Elvira in L’italiana in Algeri and Berta in Il barbiere di Siviglia, is the dominating and most exposed female voice in the ensembles.

Maurizio Benini is a brilliant conductor. In his hands, the famous overture is both a delicate lacework of rarefied and nuanced sounds, and a game of vivid and bright reflections; the famous crescendos are achieved without accelerating tempos, a regrettably all too common trick. He has impeccable timing and draws a musically accurate, polished yet zestful, bubbly performance.

The production by Cesare Lievi, with sets and costumes by Maurizio Balò, was first unveiled in 1997 to mixed reviews. As it is by now a familiar production, I will not dwell on it too long. Personally I like Lievi’s conglomeration of Magritte and Lewis Carroll allusions and do not completely agree with those who find it marred by excessive busyness. Yes, it’s hectic, but after all it is an opera buffa. I do agree that recurring to elements like cracked mirrors, three legged sofas, peeling wallpaper as symbol of moral decline are (and were in 1997) already a bit too bromidic.

As it is clearly noted on the DVD back cover, this production was made possible by Alberto Vilar, who has just made headlines one more time for being sentenced to nine years in prison for wire fraud, securities fraud and money laundering.

I find no fault in Gary Halvorson’s DVD direction. As usual, he seems to know the score in detail and has an acute sense of what to highlight. There is nothing distracting in this direction, and this is more than sufficient for me. The only minor flaw I noticed was to show the wedding cake from above, revealing the steps and thus spoiling the effect of the two protagonists climbing on top of it.

Thomas Hampson is the host of the performance. Except for a brief introduction, his interviews with the artists are included in the DVD’s extras. The most interesting information comes from Ms. Garanca, who reveals her intention to drop La Cenerentola from her repertoire very soon and dedicate herself to less acrobatic, more dramatic roles. She does not say it here, but in other interviews she has declared that her biggest goal is to sing… Amneris.