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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2018 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Opera Review: When the Shoe Finally Fits

MSM Opera unearths Nicolo Isouard's Cendrillon.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
What Cendrillon is all about: the shoes. 
In recent years, the Manhattan School of Music's opera program has become a cabinet of curiosities: a clearing-house for little-heard versions of familiar operatic stories by unfamiliar composers. The latest of these, seen Saturday at the school's temporary performance space, the Florence Gould Auditorium at the French Institute/Alliance Francaise is Cendrillon, in a 1810 opera-comique by the Maltese composer Nicolo Isouard.


Isouard (1773-1818) is a Maltese composer who wrote thirty operas for the Paris opera-comique. His deep obscurity is matched only by the quality of his classically influenced music. Indeed, this work sounds and plays like a missing link between the operas of Gluck and Berlioz, displaying an adherence to form (a trademark of the classical period) with the wit of the latter composer. Indeed, moments in this setting of the familiar fairy tale play a bit like parodies of Gluck and especially Rameau. The conservatory fielded two casts, and Saturday's matinee performance featured the second under the baton of the stylish French conductor Pierre Vallet.

The libretto by Charles Guillaume Étienne follows the standard version of the fairy tale. Cendrillon (Michelle Capano) lives under the tyrannical rule of her father, the Baron and his two ill-mannered daughters Clorinde and Tisbé. She meets Alidor (Sidhant Seth) a wise philosopher (the "Fairy Godmother") who enables her attendance at a royal ball and tournament, where she falls in love with the handsome Prince (Taicheng Li). The Prince on the other hand is posing as a squire, letting his footman Dandini (Marshall Morrow) pose as the Prince to fend off the two older daughters. The same libretto was adapted by Rossini into his own La Cenerentola, which still holds the stage.

In Isouard's setting, the best moments go not to the heroine but to Clorinde and Tisbé, her wicked stepsisters. They repeatedly stole the show. In the second act, Clorinde (Hannah Friesen) danced a bolero to seduce "The Prince", with her sister vamping in the background in a fit of jealous rage. That rage came to a climax at the start of Act III, where Tisbé (Emilyn Badgely) sang a good old fashioned revenge aria, a parody number written in the style of Mozart's "Der Hölle Rache."

Michelle Capano was a sweet and capable Cendrillon, with an open and warm manner that instantly won the audience to her side. As the Prince, Mr. Li sang well enough, although his sung French was better and clearer than his spoken dialogue. (Opera-comique uses spoken dialogue instead of recitatives.) Marshall Morrow displayed a gawky manner and good comic timing as Dandini, who has to impersonate the Prince for most of the second act. (This Beaumarchaisian plot element is also a crucial part part of the Rossini opera.) Willian Huyler was a bland presence as the Baron, who lacked the  swagger and general bastardry that makes for a good villain.

There were some clever touches in this production, which was directed by the ubiquitous Dona D. Vaughn.  Arnulfo Maldonado created a  unit set made for an easy shift between the Prince's palace and the Baron's meager house. The offstage royal tournament turned out to be a chess tourney, with the Prince celebrating a very strategic victory. Tracy Dorman's costumes, which drew on 1920s flapper culture for the ladies, displayed sparkle and wit. And unlike the Rossini, where the story's most famous moment fell under the axe of the Roman censor, there was a glass slipper at the end. 

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.