Faster than the fastest vibrato, and able to intone an impossible number of notes in a single bound, Theo Lebow, the felicitously facile and sweet-toned tenor with a trumpeting top, portrayed a prince the most discerning Cinderellas and audiences had hoped someday would come. He arrived last night at the Mosesian Center in Watertown. No need to wish upon a star anymore: Boston Midsummer Opera’s run of Rossini’s Cenerentola (Cinderella) continues Friday and Sunday.
John Traub’s serviceable set, with a prairie-style woodburning fireplace (why did Cinderella carry coals instead of ashes?), gilt picture frames screening the backstage orchestra, and an arrangement of steamer trunks (?), gave way to a round pouf sofa and the requisite ballroom chairs, providing sufficient, albeit occasionally vague, grounding in period and place in support of the entirely convincing vocal theatrics and director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman’s well-blocked comic high jinks.
Rafael Jaen costumed the players in a never-less-than-festive mixture of periods and styles, though Cenerentola’s rags looked a bit too glad. With limited resources Jeffrey Adelberg illumined the proceedings with some interesting psychosocial touches, especially when he used footlights to signify in apostrophe.
As some readers know, Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferreti managed to transform Charles Perrault’s story into a new opera over 24 intense days of invention and recycling. If they discarded some familiar figures and the iconic glass slippers (possible mis-translation from fur slippers *), then they gained a new core of humanity by replacing the evil stepmother with a smarmy and greedy yet believable stepfather, and the fairy godmother with a Sarastro-like tutor, giving Rossini the opportunity to sneak some serious pathos into his nearly nonstop patter.
The catty stepsisters remain. Soprano Chelsea Basler as Clorinda projected camp diva fury as Clorinda, while mezzo Megan Roth smoldered as Tisbe. They vamped about with sufficient trashy glitter, bringing the angry coloratura across the footlights with comic menace.
Jason Budd, a beloved veteran of these productions, possesses the most highly developed comic chops of anyone onstage. His mobile girth brings belly laughs whatever he shakes, and his face is as pliable as silly putty. To these comic charms he adds a lustrous lyric polish. No mere swaggering basso-buffa, he gave a signal interpretation of Don Magnifico.
To the title role aka Angelina, Allegra De Vita brought glam of chords and figure as well as an emotional directness that stopped the show just as it began with an inviting “Una volta c’era un re.” Coloratura display and warm lyricism abided together with reassuring comfort.
Everyone showed off highly developed bel canto techniques: legato, staccato, messa di voce, delicious portamento and rubato, and all managed to vary their arias and recitatives into graceful divisions. Ryne Cherry portrayed a reliably blustering valet, and Eric Downs, the most profound bass of the three onstage, produced some incredibly long phrases and maintained a suitably dignified posture as the philosopher Alidoro .
Sometimes abetted by the principals, the six courtiers participated in fast and clean highly ornamented ensembles. If shaping seemed absent and competitive bellowing often obtained, that must have been the consequence of conductor Susan Davenny Wyner’s placement with her back to the singers. Video monitors on the auditorium’s endwall required everyone onstage to stare up high to observe her clean beat, but we wanted something more than timekeeping in the ensembles.
The responsive small orchestra (3,3,2,1,1 plus winds and percussion) gave a lively and quick account of the witty score. Davenny Wyner knew just when to underline and when to order a forced march. Do not, however, expect sumptuous orchestral bloom from small forces in a dry room. Brian Moll’s work on the tastefully amplified harpsichord showed great flexibility and sensitivity to the singers.
The loyal crowd generously signaled its pleasure in the company’s 14th production.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer
* My colleague Ann Davenport suggests we consider the controversy over the homonymous words verre/vair (glass/valuable fur). Perrault’s 1695 edition says: glass. But some people argue that was a typesetters error.
In 1841, Balzac has a fictional character, a furrier, argue that the original story must have been vair, but Balzac himself does not commit himself one way or the other.
An official Grand Larousse took it upon itself to “correct” the story and declared that the pantoufle (slipper) was of vair, based on realism. But a later Larousse took it back, restored verre and argued that myths, fairy tales, are not meant realistically, but thrive on fantasy elements. Anatole France defends verre as more appropriately mythical, fairy-tale-like, while Arsene Houssaye defends vair as more realistic.
The very texture and genesis of the fairy-tale mode is at stake. Must a fairy tale be realistic to be enjoyed?