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Rossini eschewed magical trappings when he composed his opera based on the Cinderella myth, La Cenerentola: there's no fairy godmother, a pumpkin doesn't turn into a carriage, and mice don't become horses. All the magic is poured into a scintillating score with astonishingly florid writing for the singers. In Charlotte, Opera Carolina's production combined orchestral virtuosity and eye-catching sets with a terrific ensemble of young singer-actors, leaving the March 9 opening night Belk Theater audience open-mouthed in wonder.
Rossini's Cinderella is named Angelina, and she is the abused drudge of her self-centered stepfather, Don Magnifico, and his spoiled daughters Clorinda and Thisbe. Alidoro, tutor of the prince, Don Ramiro, acts as matchmaker for Angelina and his pupil. Hoping to determine the true nature of Don Magnifico's daughters, the prince is in disguise, having switched costumes with his valet, Dandini. After the ball, instead of trying to find the owner of a glass slipper, the prince must match one of a pair of bracelets.
Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux was simply breathtaking as the long-suffering Angelina. Her face is vividly expressive, and she is a graceful actress with a refined sense of physical gesture. There are no weaknesses in her vocal armor. Her solid lower register is dark and substantial, and her voice can move seamlessly to ringing high notes. Her diction is superb, too, but it is her phenomenal agility, her ability to launch fusillades of perfectly pitched notes that astonished listeners. She added lots of improvised notes to the brilliant rondo "Nacqui all'affano, al pianto." Notes were coming in at a rate reminiscent of a Spitfire strafing ground troops, and every one of them was on target. Wow!
What a pleasure it was to witness bass Dale Travis' classic Italian-style buffo performance as Don Magnifico! A student of Italo Tajo, he employed all the best elements of that tradition with great comic timing. Best of all, his voice is still in its early maturity – full, resonant, warm, and flexible enough to execute fast runs precisely.
More than once, the light and flexible voice of tenor Bradley Williams reminded me of Luigi Alva, a classic Rossini singer of the 1960s and '70s. As Don Ramiro, Williams' mellow and winning timbre had spot-on highs and enough agility to match notes with Genaux in their duets. His lower range, while adequate, paled in comparison to his middle and higher registers.
Bass Daniel Cole brought a magisterial stage presence to the role of Alidoro, his darkly plangent tones adding to his commanding delivery.
The secondary roles were strongly cast. Bass Ryan Taylor brought out all the comic possibilities of Dandini, the Prince's wisecracking servant. Although his voice had slightly less heft than his colleagues, his tone was pleasing, and he was nimble enough to hold his own in the rapid-fire ensembles. Two young singers, frequently reviewed by CVNC for their efforts at Opera Carolina, Piedmont Opera, Greensboro Opera, and the NCSA-Fletcher Opera Institute, made the perfect pair of quarrelsome sisters. No amount of physical comedy and mugging impaired the flawless pure soprano of Rhonda Overman as Clorinda, and mezzo-soprano Dawn Pierce scored another triumph as Thisbe. Her robust sound was readily projected; it was throaty when communicating high dudgeon and soared evenly when expressing rage. Pierce's flair for comedy was a contrast to her recent tragic roles for the Fletcher Opera Institute – Idamante in Idomeneo and the title role in The Rape of Lucretia.
General Director James Meena's Postludes, given in the nearby McColl Room, are always worth attending. The opening night guest was Cinderella Stage Director Jay Lesenger. Details about rehearsing and collaborations with singers were informative and insightful. His subtle choices of stage business and blocking of main characters and chorus were excellent. A prime example was Lesenger's presentation of Rossini's set pieces, such as the great Act II sextet, built upon a staccato tune from which each singer breaks away with a florid phrase while maximizing the comic possibilities of the rolled Italian "r." The traditional period sets, designed by Ercole Sormani, were magnificent. Painted sets on drop curtains that could be instantly raised into the stage loft speeded the scene changes. Realistic sculptured details utilizing forced perspectives were superb examples of trompe d'oeil. Director Lesenger added a truly magical moment for Alidoro's aria "Là del ciel nell'arcano profondo.": the back third of Don Magnifico's house disappeared into the loft, revealing a night sky filled with stars. While Rossini's Cinderella has no deus ex machina, Lesenger had Angelina's ballroom gown descend from the ceiling. (That it was Carolina Blue was no surprise to this alumnus-critic! What other color would God choose to send down?) The composer's storm music gave Lighting Designer Michael Baumgarten plenty of latitude for apt, flashy fireworks. Ranging from colorful undergarments to the richest suits and dresses, Edward Kotanen's costumes were eye-catching and dramatically appropriate. Baffo Travis made fine comic use of his wig, just one of many designed by Martha Ruskai. Her makeup designs for Clorinda and Thisbe heightened their comic contrast with Angelina.
The chorus had been carefully prepared by Mark Tysinger. Emily Jarrell Urbanek's harpsichord accompaniment of the recitatives was tasteful and had a witty sense of fun. Guest conductor Christopher Larkin kept close co-ordination between the stage and pit and led with a marvelous sense of style. The Charlotte Symphony – especially the woodwinds and horns – played brilliantly, and the strings kept together in chamber music-like fashion.