In Rossini’s Cinderella, virtuosic melody and clever harmony combine in a classic operatic adaptation of one of the world’s most universal fairytales, in which artistic director Andrew Altenbach makes his Boston Opera Collaborative conducting debut. Grand Harmonie, a period ensemble dedicated to rendering the works of Classical and Romantic composers on the instruments for which it was written, will be in the pit at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester August 1st-4th. Tickets are $25 general, $20 seniors, $15 students, 10 & under free. All seating is general admission, first come, first served (no assigned seats). More information is here.
BMInt conversed with stage director Katherine Carter, artistic director Andrew Altenbach and Grand Harmonie co-director and bassoonist Elizabeth Hardy.
BMInt: Tell me about the production—is it informed by some contemporary politics, or is it simply a fairy tale as Rossini imagined it?
Katherine Carter: I can assure you it has nothing to do with contemporary politics. It’s very much a modern fairy tale.
We were inspired by the current British royal family. Around the world girls are looking at Kate and speculating on how they could marry a prince. So that current story can be seen to re-invigorate the fairy tale. Anyone who is good and true can rise above her situation and have magical things happen.
Where do you set the action?
The design team and I came up with the term “magical realism”; setting it in modern day, with influences from the classic fairy tale, nautical touches, and bold colors.
The set has a larger than life feel. Set designer Shane Fuller has done a fantastic job of creating two specific locations with two very different esthetics. Don Magnifico’s disintegrating home has the gleaming remnants of his former glory including the gorgeous fireplace which winds up into the rafters of The Strand. The ball takes place at the Prince’s Summer Palace; we wanted to evoke the feeling of looking out on the water from a giant balcony. Shane has given me a ton of space to play with staging while keeping the magic of the setting sparkling using sweeping golden fabrics.
How is Rossini’s Cinderella different than the Disney version?
Rossini’s story is more about trickery and deception than magic. We have no pumpkins turning into coaches or fairy godmothers. Rossini gives us a Prince in disguise, his goofy sidekick, a scheming patriarch, two hilariously cruel sisters, a tutor who knows best, and the picture perfect Cinderella. It has all of your favorite parts of Disney’s Cinderella with some delightful new twists. The show has something for everyone to enjoy.
How ugly and crazy are the caricatures of the stepsisters?
Out sisters are not caricatures. In both casts they are wonderful together. Costume designer Caitlin Cisek and I look at them as the women who make the worst fashion choices while believing they are the most fabulous things since sliced bread. Like the people who wear shoulder pads 20 years after they faded from fashion. It’s more about their bad attitude than depicting them with bad hair and black teeth.
It’s a rather long opera—are you making some cuts?
We cut it down to 2 hours and 30 minutes, including an intermission. It’s a fast paced, extremely fun production. The cast has amazing voices, and all of them are embracing Rossini’s comedy to the fullest. We have been having a great time and cannot wait to share it with our audience!
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BMInt: Tell us the why you chose this opera for your BOC debut.
Andrew Altenbach: The piece, first of all, is a real gem that doesn’t get enough American performances in my opinion. The company has not done a Rossini production in it’s history and the musical and linguistic skills required to pull it off challenge our artists to make significant artistic leaps. For the public, the story is known and beloved by many. I believe it also to have more depth than the Disney story (minus the mice and glass slipper!). The prince and Cinderella fall in love regardless of looks. They have a wonderful spark at first encounter, believe the other to be a poor servant, and fall in love with each other’s kindness and humanity. Looks play little and wealth, not at all, into why they get together. Lastly, the company has produced a lot of serious dramas lately and the rollicking comedy presents a nice change for our artists and the public.
In the past the Boston Opera Collaborative rotated its personnel in a lot of roles- playing singing, conducting directing, and development—is it now more of a conventional company?
The only people who are now on the roster are singers. No longer do they have stage directors and conductors on the roster. So there’s no rotation from that standpoint. The roster members do head up various committees for development, marketing, production, etc. As artistic director I am part of an executive team which also includes a general director and a managing director. The three of us craft a vision for the company. We strive to create opportunities that develop our artists while best serving the greater Boston community.
Will your singers continue to mature with the company or will you always be presenting singers early in their careers?
I think it will predominantly be emerging talent in the American opera scene that is transitioning to bigger and bigger opportunities. I would prefer that people do not spend five–seven years on the roster. They should transition out after two to four years. I believe that would be the healthiest process, because it would give them opportunities, inspire them, and help them sharpen their craft. Then hopefully they will go on to do things beyond the company and beyond Boston.
Can you tell us something about the orchestras that BOC puts together and how this one is different?
Up until La Cenerentola the company has individually contracted players. I don’t think there’s ever before been a set ensemble with which we’ve collaborated. It’s the same with a lot of the smaller companies in New York and Boston. They reach out to the various ringers in town and construct a group from that. Whereas a group like Boston Lyric Opera has a set group and collective bargaining agreement. In this opera we are working with a more established group, Grand Harmonie. This collaboration came about due to their interest in the particular repertoire as well as my relationship with the group. I guest conducted the orchestra in March for their first orchestra concert. Their core is exclusively wind players, but they were also interested in the symphonic repertoire and knew some classical string players who wanted to work in this rep.
For BOC Grand Harmonie will bring strings (4 firsts, 2 seconds, 2 violas, two cellos and a double bass), double winds, two trumpets, one trombone. From what we accomplished at the rehearsal last night, we were very encouraged there will be a nice sound in the theatre. Although the space is large, that orchestra feels like a full participant in the drama and story-telling.
Don’t think of this as an early music ensemble which we associate with Renaissance and Baroque instruments. The instruments here are not modern but were designed in the classical period for that particular repertoire. The strings will be playing on gut (like they would in Baroque music) but use classical bows which articulate the gut strings in a different way. There are natural horns and classical winds. For example, the Baroque oboe and Classical oboe are different in their architecture, fingerings, reed make-up, response to air pressure, etc. Rossini would have been writing for these particular instruments, and many of his musical markings will fit more naturally on these instruments. Also, the pitch tuning will be at 430 rather than the more standard Baroque turning of 415.
Are you happy with the Strand Theater?
Other than not having a high speed train from Park Station to the Strand’s front door, I love it. BOC’s relationship with the Strand started last summer—they did Orpheus there, and in terms of what resources it offers, it’s a very nice place to perform. The acoustic is excellent, the aesthetics are really lovely, the pit and backstage are very functional—there’s fly-space, wing-space, there’s a pretty good lighting plot available, there are individual and chorus dressing rooms. Plus the staff is always friendly and helpful. Other theaters in town might have these amenities but cost a level beyond our present budgets.
We also are cultivating a relationship with the Somerville Theater- we’re returning there in May, but it’s hard to book in the summer since they make their bread and butter with blockbuster films then. The stage and audience space has a lot of character, decent sound, seating that maintains lots of intimacy with the stage, and a T stop just outside the door. There are more spatial limitations there in terms of the stage (when compared with the Strand) but that also forces us to be more creative about producing compelling theater, regardless. What BOC did there with Dead Man Walking was quite exciting, and the simplicity in the approach allowed for the music and words to speak more directly.
What do you see as your repertoire goals for BOC?
In the time I’m with the company, I hope we can explore repertoire that still is quite lyrical, but is out of the realm of pre-conceived assumptions about exactly what an opera patron traditionally would expect. For instance, in May we are presenting Mohammed Fairouz’s Sumeida’s Song. It is a very exciting piece and has beautiful writing for the voice and orchestra. However, it’s a piece that might not necessarily be tackled by other companies in town. When we do explore a standard work like Cenerentola, collaborating with a period orchestra hopefully allows for a different experience for listeners. Certainly it has been exciting for the company and myself. Art should get people talking, and hopefully these performances will do just that.
Grand Harmonie co-director and bassoonist Elizabeth Hardy adds: Despite the popularity of many early music groups, there are few opportunities for American audiences to hear music after 1800 performed on instruments as the composer knew them. Boston has long been a leader in the historical performance movement, so it is fitting to find a young opera company here with the vision to take the plunge into historically informed Rossini. Grand Harmonie specializes in this not-quite-so-early music repertoire from Mozart to Brahms, so we are thrilled to be working with Boston Opera Collaborative for this project. In fact, we performed the overture to Cinderella in concert this May, where The New York Times appreciated “the softer-grained yet woolier, wilder textures of the period instruments”, saying that “the lilting sprightliness of this account bode[s] well [for the full production].” BMInt’s review of that concert is here.
An appendix with biographies and useful facts about the production is here.