This coming Friday, Sunday, and Tuesday at TPAC’s Polk Theater, the Nashville Opera Association will perform Rossini’s Cinderella before ending the year with a double bill, Gianni Schichi and Trouble in Tahiti, on June 12 and 13. The season so far has been an audacious success, and all indications are it will finish as strongly as it began.
Nashville Opera’s 1997-98 slate began with a spectacular production of Verdi’s Aïda, the quintessential instance of opera as melodrama. That opulent grandeur, worthy of Charlton Heston in Ben Hur or The Ten Commandments, was followed by Britten’s intensely tragic Turn of the Screw. Now comes a production very different from both of the aboveRossini’s version of the Cinderella tale, called in Italian La Cenerentola.
Well over 300 versions of the Cinderella fable have been collected from Iceland to India, from Austria to Russia. Most of us know the French version animated by Disney, with cruel stepmother and glass slipper, but this is not Rossini’s version. A lighthearted comedy that ends very happily, this opera is not a fairy tale at all. There is no stepmother but a stepfather. Instead of a fairy godmother, there is a tutor/philosopher whose arcane wisdom can call up a well-timed storm and arrange for a carriage to break down in the right place at the right time. And this Cinderella is identified not by a slipper of any kind (because in Italy at the time no decent woman could show her ankle in public), but by means of a bracelet. The real magic, meanwhile, is spontaneous and generous love overcoming petty, stupid, selfish pride. But even that is not allowed to be taken too seriously.
The story, authorized by a valid poetic license, is simple: In a formerly upscale house lives a widower with two daughters of his own, plus their deceased mother’s first child. Dad used to have money but now teeters on the brink. His one hope is to find rich hubbies for his girls. To improve the odds, he tries to discard the stepdaughter. You can see why he would. His own daughters are (as he ironically boasts) shoots from dad’s trunkselfish and stupidly pretentious. Angelina, the stepdaughter/half-sister, is their bright and generous foil. They treat her very shabbily, but their shabbiness is more petty than cruel, and Angelina, though vexed, shows no hints of neurosis.
When the opera opens, the three of them are the first persons we see onstage. Dad’s girls are busy rivaling each other in self-admiration, while Angelina is singing a little song: Una volta c’era un re (“Once upon a time there was a king”). In the song the king has a son. Three girls want to marry him. He chooses the one who has a kind heart.
Down the avenue a couple blocks is the Prince’s castle. This Prince needs to marry right away so as not to lose his inheritance. Even so, he wants his bride to love him for himself alone and not for his Microsoft shares. So he commissions his tutor to locate a suitable candidate. The tutor, having done a survey, steers the Prince to Angelina’s house, but the Prince has to do the choosing himself. So he sends his valet (disguised as Prince) to scout the options, while he tags along (disguised as the valet) to weigh the evidence. Dad and bimbos go after the false prince, while Angelina is spontaneously kind to the false valet. Both valet and Prince instantly tumble for Angelinawho herself instantly falls in love with the Prince, even though she thinks he is really the valet.
The opera turns on this contrast between stupid selfishness and spontaneous generositybut it never takes the theme too seriously. This is not Britten, nor is this Verdi or Puccini. This is Mozart Litesophisticated and clever, but with no Deep Hidden Meaning. But then, that’s why the opera is so wonderfulit is about as far away from Turn of the Screw as possible. The fable exists to give rise to situations that Rossini can write music forsophisticated, inventive, delicious music that lets the singers strut their stuff, shows off the genius of the composer, and keeps the audience smiling and chuckling over their Soave long after the final curtain has fallen.
Indeed, the music is wonderfully melodious, always good-humored, and often quite witty, much of the wit coming from the interplay between orchestra and singers. Its one liability (which is why, some critics say, it is not heard more often) is that it demands really athletic voicesathletic like a prima ballerina or a figure skater. The music is not only bel cantounderstood in this context to mean long, lovely, lyrical lines; this bel canto is also coloraturaornamented with rapid leaps and turns and trills. When it works, the crowd is awed. When it doesn’t, the crowd mumbles under its breath. In this opera, the singersespecially Angelinahave to land some tough jumps and make them seem effortless.
John Hoomes and Carol Penterman of Nashville Opera have already landed a couple tough jumps themselvesAïda and Turn of the Screw. Now they are risking another one. Certainly the assembled singers are talented and seasoned. Julia Ann Wolfe, whose résumé includes frequent work with the New York City Opera, comes to Nashville to sing Cinderella soon after having sung the same role with Indianapolis Opera. (James Caraher, conductor of that production, will direct the Nashville Symphony in this production.) John Davies, as her stepfather, has sung several times already in Nashville, as well as with the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera. Brad Diamond, who sings the Prince, is a young tenor with a prize-winning voice. Marcia Jones, singing one of the half-sisters, lives in Nashville; she was last seen and heard onstage as the compelling figure of Miss Jessell in Turn of the Screw. Not a weak larynx in the cast. I look forward confidently to this turn on the ice.
The opera itself is a zinger. It contains some lovely arias. And listeners with good memories will hear bits of tunes recur and permuteespecially “Once upon a time there was a king.” But in this opera, ensembles are the really special stuff. The love duet when Angelina and the Prince fall in love is delightful, and so is the comic duet sung by the stepfather and the Prince’s valet. But the composer’s genius really shines in the quintet near the end of Act I (in which the stepfather tries to confute the evidence that Angelina is his daughter), and in the sextet that leads into the happy finale in Act II. This famous sextet shows off Rossini’s comic genius with brilliant grace. After a storm has brought everyone together and has removed the disguises, all the main figures sing about how snarled the knot has become. The six voices sustain a kind of obbligato percussive foundation using repetitions of the Italian rolled “r,” out of which rise and turn little flares of melody by one voice, then another, as the snarl becomes unsnarled.
All is brought to a happy conclusion when Angelina generously forgives her family, moving them and the entire court to tears. Everyone melodiously and harmoniously rejoices in the happiness of the young Prince and his princess. Only the most passionate deconstructionist could find any irony in this. Reality may be out therebut it is gracefully held at bay.
Along these lines, Mars Lasar has remarked that “Creative escape is essential to our well-being.” He could be right. La Cenerentola may be called as a witness.
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