The venerable Merola Opera Program, celebrating its 60th year this summer, presented a perfectly cast Cenerentola on August 3 in the auditorium of the San Francisco Conservatory.
The concert hall lacks an orchestra pit, so stage director Chuck Hudson placed the action on an elevated playing area, but conductor Mark Morash failed to resolve the hall’s many acoustical problems. The pick-up orchestra played with little nuance, accompaniment figures were not shaped, and tempos, particularly in the first act, dragged. After about row 10 the sound was balanced and bright, but the hall is not an ideal space for opera.
Most importantly, the singing and acting were terrific. The sound of the eight Merolini tenors and basses who made up the chorus was spectacular, both crisp and robust. Ensembles were staged with imagination and a light touch, and the chorus contributed to the humor with zany ensemble moves as well as a beautifully executed umbrellas-in-the-wind bit during the second act storm music. The following sextet of confusion, “Questo è un nodo avviluppato,” used colorful twirling parasols that opened and closed in perfect time with the musical themes and entrances. It was delightful.
Donald Eastman’s scenic design featured three moveable cabinets, one side in wooden veneer to suggest Don Magnifico’s faded palace with Cenerentola’s homebase fireplace, the flip side white to represent the Prince’s fancier digs. Lighting design by Eric Watkins encompassed the stage space as well as the stage balcony, accessed by a giant staircase and used to great effect.
Christine Cook costumed the stepsisters in garish colors, adding tacky and flimsy party robes to their at-home attire of corsets and visible paniers. Soprano Natalie Image and mezzo-soprano Edith Grossman gamely slouched and slumped and pouted and pranced, and their voices carried easily and brightly over the ensembles.
Bass-baritone Andrew Hiers unveiled mature musicianship and superb comic gifts in his portrayal of Don Magnifico, from his first appearance in red onesie–awakened from sleep by his shrieking daughters–to his final groveling at the feet of his step-daughter-turned-princess. With well-sung patter, great flexibility and an excellent top, Hiers avoided buffoonery and sang with ease and warmth.
When the Prince decides to trade places with his valet Dandini in order to check out the eligible bachelorettes, the comedy heats up. Tall and lanky, in white uniform and golden crown, bass-baritone Christian Pursell’s even, focused sound commanded attention, and Dandini’s opening aria, “Come un’ape ne’ giorni d’aprile,” was a model of comic timing, with cadenzas and fioritura interrupted by Pursell’s hilarious double takes at the startling intrusions of the ugly stepsisters.
Instead of a fairy godmother, Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferretti provide a magician (philosopher and tutor, officially). Nowadays the bass-baritone gets to sing Rossini’s own aria “Là del ciel nell’arcano profondo” rather than the poor composition by Luca Agolini heard in the opera’s premiere and throughout most of the 20th century.
As the silver-haired and silver-clad magus, Szymon Wach’s offered stylish delivery—with smooth, agile, lyric voice, along with tasteful musicianship—making the most of the virtuosic piece, even as the chorus paraded around with placards bearing arcane symbols that (perhaps) illustrated Alidoro’s predictions of a fortunate outcome for the poor Angelina (Cenerentola).
As the prince Ramiro, tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro is ready to take his place in the rarified rank of Rossini tenors with his even and warm sound, impressive coloratura and solid top Cs and Ds. Recitatives flowed easily and brightly, and his virtuosic second act aria, “Si, ritrovarla io guiro,” displayed supreme skill and confidence.
Samantha Hankey, so impressive as Diana and Giove-in-Diana in Juilliard’s recent run of Cavalli’s La Calisto, was the perfect Cenerentola. From her doleful opening ballad tune, “Una volta c’era un re” to the sparkling scales and high Bs (and a lovely staccato high c-sharp) of the final “Non più mesta,” Hankey’s smoothly etched runs and luscious embellishments, along with her dramatic poise, were arresting.
The second and final performance of Merola’s Cenerentola was Saturday, August 5, while the season-ending Grand Finale Concert takes place on August 19 in the War Memorial Opera House.
Samantha Hanke pphotographed by Jiyang Chen