As a regular operagoer, you’re often asked to recommend the ideal work for the first-timer. A few operas always come to mind, for their brevity, tunefulness and relatively understandable storylines but, with Glyndebourne’s sensational revival of La Cenerentola, there’s a new contender, which I found out by taking a 14-year old on her first opera outing. The quality of the music-making, superlative onstage and in the pit, generated smiles on the faces of seasoned adults as well as wide-eyed youngsters.
Cinderella is never off the British stage at Christmas in its populist form but opera versions are performed a good deal less frequently (although Covent Garden gave us Massenet’s opera last year and this season’s Proms includes a full performance of Prokofiev’s ballet). Following hot on the heels of Il barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini’s 1817 re-telling is perhaps the best-known of high-brow renderings of the familiar tale.
Peter Hall’s quaintly traditional production (dating from 2005 but feeling much older), is more than ably revived by Lynne Hockney. Playing it straight, with a fair degree of truthfulness, elevates the flimsy libretto to something grander; it could almost be Beaumarchais much of the time. There are deft comic moments, especially Don Magnifico’s thigh-busting sit in mid-air, but nothing is overdone or caricatured and it’s a winning approach.
What raises this revival above the routine, though, is all-round musical excellence with a superb cast and a performance from the LPO, under James Gaffigan, that drives Rossini’s score with infinite finesse but plenty of bounce and a feeling of joyfulness throughout. The singing is simply world-class with a rare homogeneity in the ensembles - a mesmerizing second act sextet (“Questo è un nodo“) is the best of many outstanding moments – and individual performances that shine.
American mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as the title character stops the show time and again, with a security top to bottom and effortless coloratura that’s simply breathtaking. Her sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, in the shape of Elena Xanthoudakis and Victoria Yarovaya, are more comely than ugly, steering clear of the mugging that can so easily make these roles merely stereotypical. Xanthoudakis, in particular, generates great sympathy in her pathetic downfall, and again truthfulness – a soul-grinding jealousy and ungraciousness that is slowly won over by decency – is the order of the day. Umberto Chiummo’s Don Magnifico is a handsome husk, a long-gone grandeur replaced by debauchery and spitefulness.
Covent Garden audiences have been treated to Juan Diego Florez’s Ramiro in recent years but Taylor Stayton can give him a run or two for his money here, with a bright and unforced tenor that rises clearly above the orchestra while Argentinian baritone Armando Noguera is a find as a sharp and funny Dandini. Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang is a solid Alidoro.
La Cenerentola rivals Il barbiere for wit and inventiveness and this performance leaves us wanting more. A final word from my 14 year old daughter says it all: “It was amazing! Really funny and great music. I loved the sets and costumes and I definitely want to see another opera.”
- Simon Thomas