Faneuil Hall resounded with the bright tones of bel canto last weekend as NEMPAC presented La Cenerentola, Rossini’s operatic take on the Cinderella fairy tale. Enlivening the historic venue with comic panache and exuberant musicianship, the Friday night cast was a credit to the North End Music and Performing Arts Center, now celebrating their summer Opera Project’s fifth year.
The property itself, immensely popular in the 19th century and now enjoying renewed appreciation in the 21st, is both inventive and technically challenging. Librettist Jacopo Ferretti makes a few significant alterations to the well-worn narrative, giving Angelina, called “Cenerentola” (Cinderella), a wicked stepfather instead of a stepmother and a set of matching bracelets in lieu of glass slippers. The fairy tale’s magical elements are replaced by the results of happy accidents: the heroine is kind to a beggar (actually Alidoro, the prince’s tutor, in disguise) who rewards her pure heart by facilitating her interactions with his master. The prince, Ramiro, does not wait until the ball to meet his future bride, but instead seeks her out at once on Alidoro’s recommendation. Like any self-respecting fairy tale hero, Ramiro wishes to be loved for his personal merits rather than his wealth and title, so naturally he trades identities with his valet in order to woo his potential bride incognito. As one does.
Stage Director Rebecca Miller set the scene in British-occupied Boston of 1774, during which, she notes, Faneuil Hall was used as a theater to entertain officers and Loyalists. The scenario she described in the program seemed to be more of a suggestion that an intricately crafted directorial concept. Though Nancy Ishihara’s costumes proclaimed the upper echelons of late 18th -century Tory society (the chorus were dressed in the iconic “redcoats” of George III’s army, for example), specific plot points were not integrated into the general historical setting. If anything, the staging seemed homage to Fanueil Hall’s status as an icon of American historical tourism: in an isolated anachronistic gesture, the stepsisters pulled out an iPhone and a selfie stick in order to take an appropriately duck-faced pre-ball self-portrait. A staged prologue played out during the overture featuring children from NEMPAC’s community dance ensemble, costumed to match characters from the adult cast. It was an admitted attempt to integrate the Center’s youngest members into a professional production, though it came across rather more self-consciously than management may have intended.
While wisely restricting the majority of the action to Faneuil’s rostrum, Miller made use of the full space: the stepsisters shrieked for “Cenerentola” from the upper galleries, suggesting the grand scale of their aristocratic manor house, while John Allen Nelson’s Dandini (the prince’s valet) made the most of an exaggeratedly majestic promenade up the Hall’s center aisle. In a moment of half-crazed, inebriated stupor, Don Magnifico tipped his hat to one of the many bronze and marble busts beneath the hall’s mammoth oil painting of Daniel Webster. (Surely the oppressive aristocrat couldn’t have been aware of his surroundings—he gave his salute to 19th-century suffragist Lucy Stone.) Ryan Bates’s simple set, consisting of period-appropriate furniture and screens, integrated seamlessly into the historic venue.
Miller and Music Director Tiffany Chang should both be congratulated on the work of the superb ensemble. Though comprised of only six singers, the chorus sang with great finesse, power and unity. As actors, they were ebullient and energized, seemingly up for anything. They brought an endearing cartoonishness to the proceedings, here lining up and crouching to serve as a human writing desk for the plastered Magnifico (having served him wine from an enormous glass moments previously), there joining together to embody a horse and carriage delivering the Prince to his beloved.
RaShaun Campbell was a warm, avuncular presence as Alidoro, the prince’s tutor and Feretti’s answer to the requirement for a Fairy Godmother. Alas, Campbell covered delivery of his rich, powerful bass-baritone so that it was impossible to make out any text at all. His is a huge, lush instrument, which seemed to echo from inside a distant grotto.
As Cenerentola’s stepfather, Andrew Miller revealed fine comic sensibilities—his manic Magnifico was foppish, flamboyant, frantic and fussy in rapid-fire alternation. The size of his physical performance, however, wasn’t equaled by his vocals – the orchestra drowned out his warm, mellow baritone all too frequently.
As Dandini, Nelson brought a deliciously hearty sound: his bold, rounded singing elicits the same earthy satisfaction as a great glass of Cabernet. Equally effective, his acting was powered by a full-body approach to physical comedy. He is an engaging presence with sharp comic instincts: relishing his Prince-For-A-Day status, Nelson swaggered, glorying in his short-lived license to give orders to his master. He’s a natural choice for this role and others of its type—if Leporello is not in his repertoire, it should be.
Anna Richardson and Valerie Osborn made an almost too-good pair as Clorinda and Tisbe, the not-at-all-ugly (just overdressed) stepsisters. Both drew focus with their magnetic stage presence, comic chops and distinguished renditions. They put individual stamps on their respective roles, giving a set of stock characters distinct characteristics and two complementing vocal palettes. Soprano Richardson (Clorinda) was a deliciously petulant brat, boasting rock-solid technique and a clear, sweet tone. As Tisbe, Obsorn combined a strong, liquid-gold mezzo with a Valley Girl’s capital-A Attitude. Both singers deserve to take on larger and more complex roles—who says wicked deeds shouldn’t be rewarded?
As Prince Ramiro, tenor Francis Rogers exhibited no small promise as a bel canto artist. His instrument is perfectly weighted for the repertoire—it is light, bright and nimble. Muhammad Ali’s famous formula for success in the boxing ring comes to mind when considering bel canto singing: the vocalist should “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Rogers’ sound has an often thrilling ring at the top of his register; his opening entrance made me quite literally sit up and take notice. The role requires a peculiar athleticism: it is a sort of marathon made up from a series of hundred-meter dashes. Rogers does not yet have perfect technical control over his part, but possesses the raw strength and natural timbre ideally suited to it. With further coaching, he will surely be capable of a first-class reading. Rogers brought a sweet affability to the role, very much in keeping with the libretto’s depiction of the prince as a down-to-earth nice guy.
Mezzo-soprano Caitlin Felsman’s reading of the title role began rather weakly but grew in strength and polish over the course of the evening. Her singing in the first act seemed vanilla: secure but without nuance. Appropriately enough given the story, however, as soon as Angelina emerged at the ball, dressed in her stately silver gown, Felsman assumed the posture and bearing of a true princess, and revealed hitherto undetectable majesty in her sound. She possesses a velvety low register with a bright, ringing top, and has the ability to negotiate between the registers with the agility so crucial to bel canto singers. Rossini has given us a smarter-than-average Cinderella (not that the bar is set very high) and Felsman projected some of the wit and confidence that distinguishes this goodhearted maiden from her fairy-tale counterparts.
Conducting the score in chamber reduction, Chang led the small ensemble (eleven plus continuo) with steady assurance. An unflappable presence at the podium, Chang’s air of calm authority belies the sensitive expressivity she manages to elicit from her ensemble. All instrumentalists played with accomplishment, though Russell Thompson’s bass and Alicia Mielke’s flute stood out for particularly evocative utterances.
Faneuil Hall is, alas, not an optimal space for opera—it has the acoustics of an aircraft hangar, meaning that without significant alterations (the addition of sound-absorbing walls, i.e.), even the most accomplished musicians are going to encounter difficulty in maintaining aural balance: the friend with whom I attended the performance lamented the “rock-concert volume levels” resulting both from our second-row proximity to the musicians and from the disposition of the hall itself. The set-up also had the unfortunate consequence of pitting the orchestra against the singers in an unintentional bid for dominance; placed nearer the audience, the instruments almost couldn’t help but conquer the voices during more richly textured passages.
Despite obstacles, the cast and crew delighted a wildly appreciative audience. The evening’s success helps illustrate why, though it is still not widely known, the NEMPAC Opera Project is an eminently worthy presence in the Boston performing arts scene. It is a hidden gem struggling to, and in great part, succeeding in allowing its virtue and vitality to shine through under less-than-ideal circumstances—much, one might say, like Cinderella.