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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Good Things End in -Uffa

It's opera season.

It's an unusually late start for us. Often, we have our first offering in mid-September, with wacky results. Last year we had to reschedule as I was (a) sick as a dog and (b) in California attending M's Brother's wedding. The year before that, we didn't get the memo that our opening night was THE opening night for Lyric. Boy howdy, were we underdressed.

Somehow, when I sent the dates to L, the October 8th performance of La Cenerentola got translated into "a long time from now." The failure to update the status of the date almost resulted in real wackiness. Fortunately, before jumping in his car and driving eastward to State College, L asked if M and I wanted to watch the Sox playoff game on Friday and/or the Penn State/OSU game on Saturday. As we headed that wackiness off at the pass, I was envisioning him with a sitcom-worthy radio earpiece in during the opera.

Beforehand, we needed to turn in our tickets for the performance of Manon Lascaut for Nov. 5 (L's brass band is hosting the US Open competition, and I have been conscripted to stage manage), which meant first scoring a ticket-exchange form and a pen from one of the harried box office attendants. While I was managing that end of things, someone tugged on the sleeve of my highly recognizable companion. It turned out to be L, who sold us our house, and her husband C, former librarian for the Lyric (and, strangely, current librarian for a company in DC to which he's 'commuting' for their fall and spring seasons). Having turned in our tickets and exchange form, we made arrangements to convene out front afterward and proceed to a suitable postopera drinks and snacks locale.

By this time, we needed to hitch an elevator ride to our seats, given that they were flashing the lights on the main floor. I suppose that the cloaked ticket takers at Lyric have always been older than Methuselah (and I guess, based on our experience at Guys and Dolls, it's a full-blown trend), but somehow I hadn't notice their unrushability even in the face of flashing lights, which punches right through zen-like calm and comes out into maddening Grandpa Simpson territory.

Although we weren't really pushing the curtain, there was precious little time to peruse the program before the lights went down. I don't know who writes Lyric's synopses for these things, but they often seem to have been translated from the original Etruscan (yes, I know, look who's talking). For a comic Bel Canto offering, the risk of expository failure can either be much, much greater or much, much less than with opera seria plots. For example trying to explain who's zoomin' whom (or who wants to be) in The Barber of Seville is a thankless task, but I'd take that on any day over trying to explain Idomeneo without a full complement of props and possibly puppets. In the case of La Cenerentola the synopsist catches a break from the librettist: The synopsis for Act I, scene i, ends thusly: "Magnifico pretends that she is dead, and all express their confusion." And how.

Although La Cenerentola is deliciously funny opera buffa (which is a good thing---I mean, how embarassing would it be to write an Afterschool Special of an opera buffa or one only suitable for airing on Lifetime) all on its own, I think this was an exceptionally well-done production for Lyric. It's terrifically cast, staged, and directed to capitalize on the comedy, so much so that the G-rated nature of the story didn't really strike me until intermission, when I had time for one of my favorite parts of opera season---drinking in the pompous essay.

In this one, there weren't any notable gems of pomposity from the writer himself, but the tidbits about the censorship Rossini and his librettist had to face were pure gold. The happy-ending Otello (reconciliation duet between Othello and Desdemona included at the behest of censors) is one of the funniest concepts I've ever come across. It tempts me to write a happy-ending Hamlet.

In terms of actual censorship, La Cenerentola got off remarkably easy. Although the replacement of the iconic glass slippers with bracelets (to avoid bare feet, which everyone knows are synonymous with Teh Sex) might seem to be a major deviation from Perrault, it fades into the background of other changes: The stepmother is given the night off; there's nary a pumpkin in sight; the footmen are not only human, they're the prince's; and the libretto is 100% godmother (fairy or otherwise) free. The libretto (and the music, frankly) seems to have left the censors precious little to do.

The original tale is about the triumph of humility, generosity, and all-around-prissy-and-irritating virtue to begin with. This version takes that to 11. The title heroine is a mezzo/contralto, not one of those dangerous, slightly hysterical, apt-to-be-semiwillingly-seduced, true sopranos. Actually, there's nary a true soprano to be found in the whole thing. But even still, Cenerentola's vocal role is astonishingly calm, camped out in the lower end of the range and quite minimal until her rondo caps the opera (and that, so says the pompous essay man, was originally a tenor showpiece harvested from Il Barbiere to sooth the savage prima donna beast).

Her tenor prince is just as virtuous. Under the supervision of his tutor/court philosopher, he is actively seeking (rather than happening upon) a virtuous woman to marry by switching places with his valet. The worst sins exhibited seem to be the pride and avarice of Cenerentola's stepfolk (although even the latter is tempered by the dire financial straits in which the Baron's family finds itself). There's none of the lusty bed-hopping, boobie flashing, simulated fellatio bawdiness of most comic operas. But as I said, the comedy in this production is so skillfully handled, one never feels that the story has been sanitized for one's protection.

The sets were fabulous. In Act I, the curtain opens on flats representing the view of the Casa Montefiascone from the street. Given that the overture (also harvested from something else by Rossini) is about half an hour long (ok, I suppose it's only about 10 minutes, but it's somewhat obvious that it wasn't originally intended to be part of this opera, so it seemed longer), I had plenty of time to soak in design, and they deserved the contemplation. The artwork was somewhere between Gorey and Dore (and as far as I'm concernted, there's no bad there), with the addition of an aggressively two-dimensional quality. The house is a masterpiece of decay with its mismatched doorways, the female-form columns half dismembered by erosion, and poorly boarded-up windows in the upper storey.

With a wave of Alidoro's hand (actually, the gag of Alidoro [court philosopher/prince's tutor] as conductor didn't quite work, though I don't know if that's mandated in the libretto or a quirk of the production), the wings of the house are unfolded, opening the interior of the house to view and providing street entrances to it from the wings.

The stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, each occupy an alcove at opposite sides of the stage, whereas Don Magnifico merits a bedroom and dressing room immediately above these spaces on the second floor. These manage to preserve the two dimensionality of the street view of the house while still suggesting a dollhouse or shadowbox. In contrast, the trapezoidal floor plan of Cenerenterola's hearth room impart terrific depth to the space she occupies. Staircases flank this room, leading up to the balcony connecting the Baron's two alcoves.

Inside, most of the set remains black-and-white/sepia-toned (the lighting was not all it might have been in some instances, and although that seems like a minor quibble, I think the vision of the production would have decreed black-and-white, and the creeping sepia undermined that slightly). As a result, Tisbe's shocking red hair, Clorinda's shell-pink mumu, and the scrap of rotting red carpet on the stairs pop out with terrific effect, as do the earth tone's of Cenerentola's cinderwench get up.

In the second Act, the front of Prince Ramiro's palace feels even flatter and more artificial than the Baron's house. It, too, has flanking alcoves fronted by painted shades that roll up, revealing a solarium with real greenery at stage left and, later, the wine cellar (which becomes a veritable clown car into which Don Magnifico and several dozen footmen are crammed in scene two) at stage right. However, the small amount of depth that these impart to our romantic hero's home is just the preshow for Cenerentola's grand entrance. As Alidoro announces the arrival of the beautiful, veiled lady, the entire face of the palace's center is rolled up revealing a series of nested proscenia, giving the impression that Cenerentola is advancing through a long, grand hall.

In addition to being visually appealing, the set design conspired to keep the action and the singers pretty close to the proscenium/apron junction. That's a bonus for those of us near the back of the first balcony, as there can be problems when everything's happening upstage under heavy set pieces. Given the win-win situation of the majority of the set design, the one thing that went horribly wrong stood out sharply.

La Cenerentola is staged as a two-act opera. Act I has two scenes, Act II has three. Each act requires a major set change. Even given the relative simplicity of this set, that takes some doing. In Act II, the comedic scene between Dandini and the Baron (and then Alidoro and the stepsisters) works just fine out on the apron with a cyc behind them (although, again, the lighting is not picking up the slack it perhaps ought; there's a vague hint of sky behind them).

In Act I, the same convention is used for Alidoro's aria in which he explains to Cenerentola that she'll be rewarded for her kindness and compassion to him when he was disguised as a beggar. For some demented reason, they decided that this needed a bit of visual excitement, and an exaggerated, grotesquely large version of Alidoro's shadow appears behind him on the cyc as he stiffly turns in circles, waving his arms and trying not to fall into the pit. Perhaps this was a very deep Demosthenes sort of thing and I'm just revealing my own shallowness, but this was a big "the hell?" (bleeding into a fit of giggling as it resembled portions of "What's Opera Doc?") more and more for yours truly.

In the brief moments before the curtain rose, I only had a chance to note that we'd last seen Vesselina Kasarova in the trouser role of Romeo in Capuletti e i Montecchi a few years ago. In addition to the opera itself being pretty assy, the cast, as I recalled, had some pretty serious vocal issues, so I was worried. However, for a title heroine, Cenerentola, as previously noted, doesn't have a lot to do until the very end. She did a more than passable job in her melancholy snippets and in the duet with Ramiro. As for the rondo, both L and I were sympathetic to her plight: Rossini gives her more or less fuck all to do for 3 hours, then writes in something with almost no support from the orchestra at the end. She did a decent job, though L noted some groping for the high notes and I cringed through two clunkers in a row right at her break. In general, though, the crowd seemed more than pleased, and she far exceeded my memory of her.

Many people in the opera world are talking about Juan Diego Florez, it seems. If I may start out on a completely shallow note (and guess what, bitches, it's my blog!), the man certainly knows how to fill out a pair of breeches (I mean really). I admit that I was a bit uncertain about his voice at first, the overwhelming feature of which seemed to be deliberate, relentless vibrato. However, I came to realize that the "fault" (if one can really call this fault) lies with Rossini, who embroiders Ramiro's role (and later Cenerentola's when she sings with him) with thiese almost violin-like passages. I'm not sure I was as bowled over as much of the house seemed to be by him, but he certainly is a tenor of absolute purity without any problems with lack of power. And given that the bastard is only 32, I think he'll grow into more mature roles nicely.

I can't regret that Alessandro Corbelli wound up playing Don Magnifico, rather than Dandini as originally planned, both for Corbelli's sake and for the pleasure of seeing Levi Hernandeza as Dandini. Corbelli doesn't quite rise to my Welsh bass-baritone boyfriend's vocal caliber in the role (but then again, who could?), but his voice is nothing to sneeze at, and his physical comedy was masterful. (Note to those doing the blocking: Carrying your baritone offstage on a set piece while he does sprightly leg kicks gives me gray hair.)

On the flipside of that casting switch, Levi Hernandez was positively phenomenonal. I have to admit that he didn't make much of an impression on me either in A Wedding or in Tosca, but his voice was made for this role and he was made for Dandini's ridiculous costumes. I positively covet his coat from the first act, which was almost indescribably over the top, sort of a straight frock coat with a cloaklike set of tails starting just below his arm pits and descending almost to the floor, midnight black on the outside, lined with lily-white silk on the inside.

As for Clorinda and Tisbe, I was wondering why Lauren Curnow didn't seem familiar to me, given that she was credited as The Fox in last year's Cunning Little Vixen. Upon digging out my ramblings on that, I find we had a replacement. She as Clorinda and Meredith Arwady as Tisbe were both vocally enjoyable and gave terrific comedic performances. Arwady's headshot suggests that she has slimmed down considerably, giving her a Mink Stole-like vibe to Curnow's Divine. I'm not entirely sure that these ladies weren't saddled with leftover costumes from The Pirates of Penzance (Tisbe in a tea-length monstrosity polkadotted and bowed to hell and back; Clorinda in a peppermint-striped day dress with a fabulous hat). The single costumes, highly inappropriate for a ball, bugged me a bit until Cenerentola showed up in her striking velvet ballgown and I realized it was meant to lend a bit of pathos to the daughters whose fortunes had fallen so far.

I can't find any fault with Mark Doss's (Alidoro) voice, but there's something smug and morally superior about the role in general that is out of place. In contrast, the roving band of footmen completely rob every scene of any hope of dignity, and visually and aurally add greatly to the overall laugh-a-minuteness of the production. C-bob gives this, censored or not, two thumbs up.

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