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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Opera Review: Fairytale of New York

Joyce DiDonato is the Met's radiant Cenerentola.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Javier Camerena (left) and Joyce DiDonato (right) confront the Flying Spaghetti Monster (center)
in Rossini's La Cenerentola. Photo by Ken Howard © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
Last night, the Metropolitan Opera rolled out its twenty-sixth and final revival of the 2013-14 season, a revival of the company's 1997 production of Rossini's La Cenerentola.. There are no glass slippers in this version of the fairy tale (Roman censors in 1817 were prudish about bare feet) but there was plenty of vocal magic in the air.

This show centers around Joyce DiDonato, the American mezzo whose energetic stage presence and ebullient personality proved a perfect vehicle for the title role. Ms DiDonato's depth and musical intelligence shown throughout the opera, starting with her careful and anti-heroic development of Angelina from helpless prisoner of her wicked stepfather to a young woman embarking on a spiritual path toward love and marriage. From her opening fireside song, she won the audience over, slowly unveiling an easy vocal athleticism combined with a pure and sweet tone. In fact, the essential goodness of the character had only one false note, a forced bit of business where the newly gowned and bejeweled Cinderella pettily steps on the bustle of her sister's dress.

All this was leading up to the dizzying final rondo. "Non piu mesta" is based on an aria that Rossini originally intended for the tenor the end of The Barber of Seville. Under Fabio Luisi's careful pacing, this number built slowly, from its first, slow phrases to a dizzying series of repetitions, each frosted with vocal ornamentation. Ms. DiDonato capped this display with a death-defying set of Mozartean intervals, demonstrating her agility while never losing the rich, mellifluous tone that is her calling-card. It is not exaggeration to say that this was a bravura performance by an important artist.

It could be argued that this spring at the Met has belonged to tenor Javier Camarena, a late replacement for Juan Diego Flórez in the first three performances of this revival. The Mexican-born tenor is 38, but he sings with a youthful freshness and energy. Blessed with a good libretto and a wonderful set of comic sparring partners, he played Prince Ramiro's impersonation of his own valet to the absolute hilt, from the diffident manner before the boorish Don Magnifico and his daughters, to the playful duet ("Zitto, zitto, piano, piano")  with his real valet, Dandini. The singer's one opportunity for real vocal display (the Act II aria "Si, ritrovarla io giuro") was one of the real thrills of the night, as he sang with a secure upper register and a ringing top.

With all the excitement generated by the two leads, it is easy to forget that this night was also the debut of an important baritone. As Dandini, Pietro Spagnoli reminded the audience that his character is effectively another spin on Figaro, supporting his noble master but at the same time not forgetting to have his own fun. Mr. Spagnoli made the most of his early opportunities to impersonate his boss delivering rapid-fire dialogue with a warm baritone and quick-footed comic timing. His interactions with Mr. Camarena showed the benefit of close rehearsal, as the two singers raced through Rossini's changes at a fierce pace.

From his first aria, Alessandro Corbelli's drunk-and-disorderly portrayal of the abusive Don Magnifico manages to be funny while reminding the audience of the character's essentially awful nature. He led off the comic insanity of this production's biggest set piece, the Act I finale that degenerates into a food fight. Mr. Corbelli was at his bumptious best in Act II, flanked by the character's equally distasteful daughters Clorinda (Rachelle Durkin) and Tisbe. (Patricia Risley). For their part, the comic mugging of these two ladies did much to enliven the first act, and their superb comic ensemble singing was crucial to the evening's overall success.

Aside from the substitution of a jeweled bracelet for the famous glass slipper, the biggest change in Rossini's version of the story is the Fairy Godmother. Here, that figure becomes Alidoro (literally "Wings of Gold") the (possibly supernatural) tutor of the Prince who is ultimately responsible for bringing the lovers together. Luca Pisaroni proved an inspired choice, singing with a firm, flexible bass and capturing the humor and wisdom of this faintly ridiculous figure. The Met chorus and orchestra performed at a high standard, with the little percussion-less band in the Met pit sounding as if there were another twenty musicians in the pit. Cesare Lievi's 1997 production still draws its cheeky inspiration from the paintings of Ree Magritte, but is starting to look shopworn. Perhaps Prince Ramiro should sponsor a sprucing-up for the next revival.

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