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August 4, 2013

Remarkable Rossini From BOC

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The step-family have returned from the ball and are suspicious about Cinderella's resemblance to the mysterious lady who captivated the prince at the party: from L to R: Ian Bowling (Don Magnifico), Sadie Gregg (Cenerentola), Laura DellaFera (Clorinda), Alexandra Dietrich (Tisbe)  (Justin Bates photo)

The step-family have returned from the ball and are suspicious about Cinderella’s resemblance to the mysterious lady who captivated the prince at the party: from L to R: Ian Bowling (Don Magnifico), Sadie Gregg (Cenerentola), Laura DellaFera (Clorinda), Alexandra Dietrich (Tisbe) (Justin Bates photo)

From August 1st through the 4th, the Strand Theatre in Dorchester is hosting what has to be one of the most pleasant musical surprises of the summer: The Boston Opera Collaborative’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Written in 1817, with libretto by Jacopo Ferretti (based on Perrault’s fairy tale), this melodramma giocoso came fast on the heels of the composer’s enormously successful Il barbiere di Siviglia and contains a similar array of easy harmonies, catchy tunes, and comic conundrums. My review is based on Friday night’s second cast. An additional report on the other cast appears as an addendum.

As with most Rossini comedies, the devilishly difficult vocal passages are the main event. They require strong yet supple voices able to negotiate wide-range acrobatics without sounding strained. The unexpected delight here was that most of the singers, all at the very early stages of their careers, were able to perform these feats with relative ease while staying in character. Sadie Gregg, a mezzo-soprano with a rich, flexible instrument, was able to deliver a vocally solid Cenerentola, though her portrayal of this young innocent as the most mature person on stage was somewhat disorienting. On the other hand, baritone Ian Bowling, whose impressive vocal and physical elasticity were equally matched, created a fabulously foolish Don Magnifico by not playing the character as an old buffoon (there is little worse than seeing a 20-something fumbling along as sexagenarian), but as a younger yet witless fop. As his cruel and equally dim-witted daughters Clorinda and Tisbe, soprano Laura DellaFera and mezzo-soprano Alexandra Dietrich were a sonically and dramatically ideal duo. Tenor Jason Connell as Prince Ramiro certainly had the vocal pliability and range for the role, though he lacked some projection both aurally and dramatically, creating a mild-mannered teenage lover whose periodic bouts of rage were more cute than convincing. The most “Rossini-esque” voice in the cast belonged to baritone Nathan Owen, whose vocally brilliant but dramatically underplayed Dandini highlighted the pure musical comedy that underpins Rossini’s audacious demands on his principals. The chorus of male attendants, though not always well-balanced in sound, made for a delightfully silly stroke of comedy; for some reason, their overly broad smiles and touchdown prancing (even when changing sets) never got old.

The production itself was a model of effective minimalism, with very little in the way of sets or props—the fireplace probably blew the budget—and primarily homegrown costumes, all of which created an oddly appropriate backdrop to the story. The Strand Theatre, a grand old place with unforgiving acoustics, allowed for a fair amount of on-stage motion and surprising clarity of vocal line in the ensemble numbers. Stage Director Katherine Carter, who clearly knows the musical score well, was able to take advantage of this feature by placing the singers in optimal positions based on what and to whom they are singing, especially in the many “stand-and-sing” numbers that are part of the work. The orchestral accompaniment was provided by the Boston-and-New York-based period instrument ensemble Grand Harmonie, skillfully and musically led by conductor Andrew Altenbach. If it took a minute or so to get used to the smaller sound—a string ensemble of 11 players is less than what one typically hears these days for this work in a 1500 seat theater—it was all the more impressive that their ensemble balance was so good, even between the 14 brass and winds with the 11 strings. Given Rossini’s orchestral writing, one can hardly blame the horn players for a few kaks (all those quiet notes to pop out) or the wind players for a few slips (all those runs). What stood out was their ability to balance with and support the singers, creating a very satisfying overall musical palate.

On a final note: if opera—even grand and large-scale comic opera—is to survive, the modest yet effective approach to it offered by the Boston Opera Collaborative is a very compelling model for that survival. More than that, it can breathe new life into a form of entertainment that, though far from obsolete, is beginning to show its laugh lines.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

*  *  *

Addendum, a report on Saturday night’s cast by Lee Eiseman:

Six of the seven principal singers on Saturday night had very good nights indeed vocally, and all seven were thoroughly engaged in their parts and with the Strand Theatre audience. In the title role, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Scarcella sang with a warmth and luster of tone, as well as speedy and secure coloratura. Her immersion in the character and her transformation from a Despinaesque servant to regal princess were somewhat hampered by her costuming. As servant, she wore skinny jeans and a striped tank top (not sure her skinflint stepfather would have indulged her in contemporary fashion), and as princess, she was dressed rigidly as a caricature Disney princess.

The stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe were essayed by Erin Merceruio and Holly Seebach. The statuesque blond Seebach was somewhat placid, while the more compact brunette, Merceruio, displayed more attitude. Vocally they were very well matched, secure, and sonorous. They also excelled in physical comedy, slow burns and mugging. Their costumes, tacky, lounging pajamas from a discount chain (replete with hair curlers) and later, thrift shop ball gowns from the 1940s, did them no favors.

As the mendicant and philosopher Alidoro, Zachary Ballard brought a reedy frame and a sturdy tenor to his comic roles. He was hilarious as the blind beggar, fine in the ensembles and as Alidoro showed great dignity.

Evan Ross as Don Magnifico had the presence of a lumberjack and looked decidedly unmagnificent in his rumpled, floor sweeping khakis, blue driving shoes, and orchid blazer. He was in fine voice, though, with a bright comic baritone which commanded the proceedings, even if he looked rather young in the role. He gave a likewise commanding performance as Bottom/Pyramus in Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream a few months ago which was reviewed here.

Dandini, disguised as the Prince, makes his grand entrance in Don Magnifico's house, while the real Prince, posing as a servant, looks on (on the far left, Jason Connell as Prince Ramiro, center, Nathan Owen as Dandini) (justin Bates photo)

Dandini, disguised as the Prince, makes his grand entrance in Don Magnifico’s house, while the real Prince, posing as a servant, looks on (on the far left, Jason Connell as Prince Ramiro, center, Nathan Owen as Dandini) (justin Bates photo)

The Prince Ramiro of tenor Zac Engle was a vocal standout. His coloratura was excellent, and he matched his Cenerentola, Scarcella, roulade for roulade in their passionate first act duet. His appearance was a bit strange, though. With his distinctive features and shiny pate, he looked like a character from a German silent movie—a cross between Prince Nucki in Lubitch’s The Oyster Princess and the Nosferatu of Max Schreck in Murnau’s famous vampire movie. He probably should have been wigged to soften a somewhat sinister appearance and to embody a young prince.

The Dandini of Samuel Bowen seemed slow to warm up. At the beginning he sounded a bit hoarse, but he was soon equal to the patter singing that Rossini had written for him. His costuming did him no favors either. Why was he in black Bermuda shorts and green striped kneesocks to play a prince-manque?

And then there was the male chorus in khaki shorts and white tee-shirts. According to a recently minted PhD musicologist seated next to me, their relentless gestures (with fixed grins, upstretched arms, and hip grinding) alluded to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” If I was immune to that in-joke, the mostly 20-something audience was not.

Tom Schnauber is a Boston-based composer and is currently serving as chair of the Performance Arts Department at Emmanuel College. He holds a Ph.D. in composition and Theory from the University of Michigan.

2 Comments

  1. I found Mr. Schnauber’s comments about Grand Harmonie rather patronizing. Despite the several vocal hiccups heard in some of the more difficult passagework, nobody called attention to the singers with a qualifying comment such as “Those runs!” Granted, period instruments are difficult to play, but does anyone call attention to the one or two notes Robin Pyle squawks during “The Trumpet Shall Sound” at Boston Baroque? Never. Let’s leave the period brass players alone and laud the obvious effort, musicality, and mastery this fledgling orchestra showed in their first operatic endeavor.

    Comment by SR — August 4, 2013 at 7:13 pm

  2. As a period instrumentalist myself, I didn’t find Mr. Schnauber’s comments to be patronizing at all. I agree that sometimes reviewers tend to make excuses for and/or condescend to performance on historical instruments, but I don’t sense that tone here. Refreshingly, he makes no statements about the relative difficulty of playing early instruments vs. modern ones–he simply comments that Rossini’s writing is technically challenging (which it is), and that faced with a score full of tricky licks, the orchestra played skillfully and musically overall, even if there were a few little flubs here and there…this is exactly what I heard from Grand Harmonie in Saturday night’s performance, so it seems like a fair and honest assessment to me. By contrast, your singling out of Robin Pyle and Boston Baroque in order to support your argument seems unfair and inappropriate. Surely it’s possible to praise the musicianship and skill of Grand Harmonie without denigrating their colleagues from other Boston-area ensembles?

    Comment by Dan Meyers — August 6, 2013 at 1:51 am

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