Monday 20 March 2017

Rossini - La Cenerentola (Belfast, 2017)

Giacomo Rossini - La Cenerentola

Opera North, 2017

Wyn Davies, Aletta Collins, Wallis Giunta, Sunnyboy Dladla, Quirijn de Lang, Henry Waddington, Sky Ingram, Amy J Payne, John Savournin

Grand Opera House, Belfast - 16th March 2017

It can't be easy to put on a programme of fairy-tale operas outside of the Christmas holiday season, as Opera North are doing in their current tour, but it at least provides an opportunity to rethink what the stories tell us and whether they are really all that linked to the seasons. The Snow Maiden aside - and even that proves to extend beyond its winter setting - Hansel and Gretel and Cinderella are both operas that you associate with the Christmas period without there being any real justification other than that they also make great pantomime material.

Opera North's production of Rossini's La Cenerentola attempts to take the pantomime elements out of the more traditional performance of the work and tries to find another way to present the vital ingredient of magic in a more contemporary and relatable context. There is nothing that is actually seasonal specific in Rossini's version of Cinderella anyway, the opera further dispensing with such traditional trappings of the golden slipper lost at the stroke of midnight and much of the fairy transformations. Aletta Collins's production for Opera North prefers to rely on other worthwhile elements in an opera that is too good to be left to compete with the pantomime market.

Collins's production takes place in a dance school, where everyone has been bitten by the 'Strictly' bug and dreams of cutting a glamorous figure on the dance floor. Anxious mothers pursuing the dream through their daughters, bring them to Don Magnifico's Scuola di Danza, where Don Magnifico's haughty and arrogant daughters Clorinda and Tisbe also hope to display their talents. Angelina, the Cinderella figure of the story, would also love to be able to dance, particularly as the prince has invited every lady in the land to a ball so that he can choose a wife, but Cenerentola's stepfather and step-sisters have more menial cleaning duties for her to perform. You know how it goes...

Traditionally Cinderella relies on glamour and set-pieces, with lots of sparkle and snow, but perhaps it puts too much trust in the need for spectacle. Aletta Collins trusts more in the inherent comedy of the piece, in the bright, dazzling music and in the actual romantic drama as being all that is really needed. As I mentioned in the case of Opera North's Hansel and Gretel, magic should be another essential ingredient in the fairy tale opera, but magic can come in many forms. Sometimes that magic can be a little more down to earth, a case of rising above one's impoverished circumstances and following a dream.

If it's often presented in a mild and inoffensive way, Cinderella also has a background in an unhappy home situation that she wants to escape. The damage caused by being the neglected child in a remarriage that leaves a young girl with an uncaring father and two bullying half-sisters can nonetheless be a traumatic experience. It might be dressed up in comedy, but you can feel the hurt and rejection and sympathise with Angelina's dream of revealing her true worth, of her beauty and talent being discovered. Rather than achieving that dream through marrying a Prince, it's perhaps easier to recognise that living the dream sentiment through being discovered in a reality-TV talent show.

Aletta Collins's production with sets designed by Giles Cadle, doesn't quite transfer it wholly across to this TV dance show format, but manages to retain a kind of in-between state between the dream and the reality. Evidently Opera North resources are limited and touring necessities don't allow for elaborate sets for three operas, but this works well with the effort to keep the production modern and real. Projections allow for some magic mirror tricks however, and there's is a delightful comic absurdity in many of the situations and details. One area that you can't skimp on however is in how you match it with Rossini's bubbly musical confection and Opera North know exactly how to present that in the best possible light.

Primarily, of course, it's in the playing of the music itself.  The effervescent rhythms, the clever arrangements, the 'magic' of the score are all brought in Wyn Davies' conducting of the orchestra. Instead of the usual strident galloping, Davies has a lightness of touch here that brings out the comic brightness of the underlying Mozart in the music, but it’s well measured for all its essential moods and tempi. You pay attention to Rossini's score like this and you'll also bring out the dazzling, energising writing for the vocal line and the cheeky ensemble pieces.

That's not easy to achieve without some exceptionally good singers and the singing here is first class. Rossini is always incredibly demanding in this respect and La Cenerentola is no exception, placing great virtuoso demands on the Angelina and Don Ramiro roles. When they are sung well however it's certainly noticeable and Wallis Giunta and Sunnyboy Dladla are both capable and impressive, flawless in technique but also in delivery, keeping everything bright and exuding charm as that other form of 'magic'.

What Rossini also clearly learned from Mozart is the importance of establishing strong personalities for all the individual characters, right down to the smallest role. In the case of La Cenerentola there are few minor roles, so the opportunity is there to really make something of the characters and that's exactly what the Opera North production does. Characters like Clorinda and Tisbe are too good to waste evidently and Sky Ingram and Amy J Payne live up to the larger than life harridans, and display some great singing too. The other roles are likewise wonderfully sung and played. Quirijn de Lang had the understated comedy of Dandini down perfectly and made a great impression alongside Henry Waddington's preening Don Magnifico and John Savournin's Alidoro. All of them contributed greatly to the colour and dynamic of a production that valued the magic of character and performance over empty gloss and spectacle.

Links: Opera North