Even with the intriguing updates, anyone familiar with the story could make sense of Boston Lyric Opera’s version of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella). In the new production at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theater on Wednesday (and through Sunday), Alidoro, Prince Ramira’s philosophy tutor, who normally disguises himself as a ragamuffin, takes on the role of fairy godmother (which Rossini did not cast). In keeping with expectations, Prince Ramiro disguised himself as his own valet, as that Dandini impersonated the Prince. Could Rossini and his librettist Ferretti have been inspired by a similar switch in Don Giovanni?
Director Dawn Simmons, making her opera debut, described her concept:
We may not have castles in the center of town, or young women shoveling coal to keep the house warm anymore, but like anywhere else we have people who want more out of life than what they’ve been handed. This story of love, transformation, and the enduring power of kindness is one everyone can relate to.
Thus the company set the scene in today’s Boston. Trevor Bowen designed modern costumes. Angelina (Cinderella) wore blue jeans, Don Magnifico appeared in colorful and mismatched ensembles, and the action looked contemporary, as cell phones and Amazon boxes made appearances. In the midst of these surprises, Angelina’s boldness impressed us even at her most despondent. Don Magnifico’s colorful dress and fey manner would have been unimaginable in Rossini’s day. These elements, upon which set designer Jenna McFarland Lord and Simmons collaborated, added to the thrill of the evening and perhaps even enhanced the musical achievements.
Act I Scene 1 takes us to Boston Seaport, where Angelina, Don Magnifico, Clorinda and Tisbe live in an upscale high-rise condominium. From the first moment, Rossini’s ability to match music with text and psychology is on full display. In Act 1 the nasty stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe (sung by Dana Lynne Varga and Alexis Peart) are bragging about their respective charms and beauty. The music is conventional (centering on G major triads) and although nominally a duet, the two never seem in any kind of harmony. The witty blocking had the pair constantly upstaging one another or looking around to see if anyone was watching, making clearly manifest the jealousy and competitiveness at the core of their relationship. Following the musical description of the two mean sisters, Angelina’s (Cecilia Hall) entrance came as a soothing balm. In a lilting D minor melody (6/8 time) she describes her own situation and outlines the trajectory that the opera will follow (“He disdained all vain displays,..and in the end chose…sweet and simple”). The orchestral accompaniment sounded spare and poignant. Hall’s mellow mezzo-soprano and deliberate shaping of every phrase contrasted with the bird like prattle of the sisters.
In the only quintet of Act I, Signora una parole we witness Rossini’s ability to weave multiple dramatic threads together. The episode opens with Angelina entreating her father to allow her to attend the ball where Prince Ramiro will choose his wife. Although a lowly maid, Angelina does assert herself convincingly, looking her father straight in the eye and at times stepping right in front of him. Hall handled the vocal gymnastics with suppleness. Don Magnifico (Brandon Cedel) projected full-throated meanness (“Get back there to your scullery”); the dark, resonant quality of his voice proved equal to the task of keeping Angelina in her place. A huge presence, Cedel’s voice, gestures and facial expressions commanded the stage. Meanwhile, Prince Ramiro (actually his valet in disguise sung by Levi Hernandez) and his valet Dandini (actually Prince Ramiro sung by Levy Sekgapane) are observing the scene and expressing disgust at Magnifico’s treatment of Angelina.
Act I Scene 2 takes us to Ramiro’s family home in Beacon Hill, an ivy-covered brick house replete with secluded courtyard. During this episode we see the sisters pursuing Dandini (dressed as the Prince). They continue to compete with one another, their voices each exhibiting a bright, showy quality, though lacking in individuality. Discreetly discussing the girls’charms (or lack thereof) during the ball which Ramiro hosts, Hernandez and Sekgapane again exhibit their flair for comedy in the duet zitto, zitto, piano, piano (quiet, quiet, softly, softly). The violins mirrored the scampering pace of the voices. The duo’s crisp enunciation and assuredness in the virtuosic textual passages added to the excitement.
Act II proceeds along conventional Cinderella story lines. Alidoro (James Demler) sees to it that Prince Ramiro finds the beautiful woman he fell in love with at the ball. Demler’s rich and sonorous bass lent an authoritative, preacherly quality to the role, enhanced by Alidoro’s singing from one of the 2nd-balcony boxes. When the masks drop and Angelina learns that her beloved is in fact Prince Ramiro, the only remaining emotional hurdle is forgiveness for Magnifico and his daughters. The final item, Angelina’s aria with soloists and chorus, then follows. Hall recapped her opening pathos and with a flourish expresses wonderment at her transformed position in life. Her magnanimity towards her family allows all to realize that a happy future is possible. Her sisters are the last to lose their resentment and ill will, but when they do their vocal qualities change. Both singers now exhibit a warm lyricism and their duets shared a true ensemble character rather than the narrow imitativeness heard to that point.
As the opera came to a close, soloists and chorus pressed through vocal and textual pyrotechnics with tight coordination. Brett Hodgdon prepared the BLO Chorus well, and those singers came across as individuals with something to do on stage. Under David Angus, the 42-piece orchestra supported the action and the singers admirably, underpinning the buoyant mood with convincing dynamic shifts. The visual and theatrical elements (selfies to the rescue!) added to the joy. A hugely successful effort added appeal and relevance to a classic.