La Cenerentola, Welsh National Opera, Bristol Hippodrome and touring

LA CENERENTOLA is a retelling of the fairy tale Cinderella.  A real showcase for vocal virtuosity, this vibrant and colourful revival of the production first staged by WNO in 2007 was sung and played with impeccable precision.

An absolute delight from start to finish, last night’s performance was, without doubt, one of my musical and theatrical highlights of the year. From the moment WNO’s musical director Tomáš Hanus raised his baton and the orchestra played the first tentative notes of the overture, we were under Rossini’s spell.

Angelina (aka Cinderella), an innocent if rather feistier character than we get in children’s versions of the fairy tale, was played for all its worth by Irish mezzo Tara Erraught.  From the rich warm tones of her lower register to her thrilling top notes she was utterly enchanting.  The complex embellishments or fioritura required by Rossini is real virtuoso stuff and makes tremendous demands on the voice, yet Erraught sailed through the lengthy passages of semiquavers and demisemiquavers with exactness and apparent ease.

The role of her prince, Don Ramiro, was taken by Italian tenor Matteo Macchioni, one of three Italian singers making their debut with WNO. Disguised as a valet when they meet, their first duet together, Tutto è deserto (Everything is desert) was full of youthful anticipation – and some appropriate ineptness on his part too. The role is probably almost as demanding vocally and although there may have been a few signs of tiredness towards the end of the production, he too sang with total precision.

Dandini, Ramiro’s actual manservant but disguised as the prince for most of the opera, was superbly played and sung by baritone Giorgio Caoduro.  The triumphant entry on a surreal two-headed horse was a coup de theatre if there ever was one and his clownish antics throughout the production kept us smiling and chuckling.  I suspect a natural comedian, there were some terrific scenes with Angelina’s stepsisters and stepfather in particular.  His duet with the latter, Un segreto d’importanza (A secret of importance) in Act II was not only tremendous musically, but a real joy to watch.

As the garishly glamorous stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe, Aoife Miskelly and Heather Lowe must have had a whale of a time.  Their interactions on stage were a delight and, as with everyone else, their vocal gymnastics were truly remarkable.  Their father, the boorish, conceited Don Magnifico, was played by Fabio Capitanucci.  His was another commanding performance, both musically and dramatically, and his wonderful aria towards the start of Act II, (Sia qualunque della figlie) was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the evening.

In La Cenerentola, Rossini replaces the traditional fairy godmother with Alidoro, a philosopher and advisor to the prince, played for WNO by Polish bass Wojtek Gierlach. Possessor of another fine bel canto voice, although maybe a little under powered at times, he brought a welcome touch of dignity to the often chaotic proceedings.

If the solos and duets were not enough, the principals’ ensembles too were impeccably executed.  Mostly comical, but some more serious, these quintets and sextets were often taken at great speed and although the surtitles didn’t always keep up with the tongue-twisting words, the verve and agility of the performers never ceased to amaze.  The musical wind up at the banquet at the end of Act I was a particular tour de force, make no mistake.

Closely observing but never ever upstaging the action was a little nest of mice.  Their playfulness throughout was absolutely lovely and there were some enchanting set pieces too; the tears at the end were particularly affecting in this respect.  Whether the wheel of the prince’s carriage was supposed to fall off I have no idea, but they dealt with it with real charm.  So far as visual spectacle is concerned though, it was the large chorus of men that made up the prince’s retinue that stole the show. Dressed extravagantly, looking not unlike giant playing cards, and every move and mannerism executed with military discipline, their powerful singing and commanding stage presence gave the production a real wow factor.

So much for the music.  What made this production even more thrilling was the witty, colourful staging described by the original director as having been created under the gaze of a Mediterranean light. In the imaginative hands of three distinguished Spanish practitioners, Joan Font (director), Joan Guillén (designer) and Xevi Dorca (choreographer and revival director) they created something that was very special indeed.  Outlandish colour (shocking pink and baby blue predominated), fantastic wigs, costumes and makeup, exaggerated gesture and expression and some utterly surreal stage business (I loved the sunglasses) were just a few of the ingredients that went into making this a truly remarkable night out.  Given the chance I would go again tomorrow.


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