Pretty in pink

Cinderella, Prince Ramiro (in gray), and the prince’s courtiers; courtesy the Dutch National Opera

As audiences have started returning to theaters over the summer and fall, arts organizations have been calibrating how (or whether) to continue the range of digital options they explored during pandemic closures. The Los Angeles Opera has opted for livestreaming performances during its 2021-2022 season, and its upcoming production of Gioachino Rossini’s Cinderella gives Santa Feans a chance to see a wonderful and warmhearted comedy that hasn’t been produced locally in 55 years.

It boasts a top-notch cast along with direction by Laurent Pelly, whose 2006 Santa Fe staging of Jules Massenet’s Cinderella (Cendrillon) was one of the company’s finest productions from the last 20-plus years. To judge from video of the Los Angeles production, which originated two years ago at the Dutch National Opera, Pelly and his design team are near the top of their game.

If you want glass slippers and magic transformations and mice pulling a pumpkin carriage, Rossini’s Cinderella isn’t for you. It premiered in January 1817 and is very much an Age of Enlightenment take on Charles Perrault’s famous fairy tale. Its subtitle is Goodness Triumphant, and Cinderella triumphs with Prince Ramiro through her kindness and willingness to forgive as much as through her beauty.

She lives with Don Magnifico, her stepfather, and his two daughters, none of whom could be described as good. Greedy, yes, because the Magnifico family has clearly fallen on hard times despite its royal title. Pelly’s production draws a hilarious contrast between Ramiro’s court and courtiers, depicted in every shade of frilly pink imaginable, and Magnifico’s grubby and gray basement apartment.

Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferretti modeled their Cinderella on two operas on the same subject that had recently been performed in Paris and Milan. Fortunately for Rossini, Ferretti excelled in building solid plots and crafting fast-moving comic verse. As usual, the composer wrote the opera at top speed. He farmed out the recitatives and three minor arias to another composer and borrowed the overture from one of his earlier comic operas, and the entire piece was written in about three weeks.

While it followed The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813) and The Barber of Seville (1816), Cinderella differed in important ways from its brilliant predecessors. There’s no shortage of farcical comedy, to be sure, but there’s also a greater emphasis on character development, especially in the title role. Cinderella and her prince both have a depth of emotion and multi-dimensionality more often associated with Mozart or Verdi than Rossini.

The stage magic that’s not present in the opera is replaced by Rossini’s musical magic, in a series of superlative ensembles and in Cinderella’s musical progression. We first see and hear her singing a plaintive little folk song, but as she becomes more and more confident, her music increases in complexity, and the opera ends with her dazzling rondo finale. During Rossini’s lifetime, Cinderella was far more popular than The Barber of Seville; only The Italian Girl in Algiers rivaled it with the public.

The romantic leads in Los Angeles are played by two charismatic young performers destined for major international careers. Italian mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi has sung Cinderella with the Paris Opera, Vienna State Opera, and the Teatro Colon Buenos Aires, and Rosina in The Barber of Seville with the Royal Opera House, Teatro Real Madrid, Zurich Opera, and the Berlin State Opera. South African tenor Levy Sekgapane is a bel canto specialist known for such roles as Nemorino and Ernesto in Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love and Don Pasquale, respectively, as well as Rossini’s Count Almaviva, which he’s performed at the Glyndebourne Festival, Paris Opera, and Berlin State Opera.

The Los Angeles cast boasts true luxury casting in two of the male comedy roles. Alessandro Corbelli (Don Magnifico) is one of the opera world’s most acclaimed comic baritones, thanks to his skill with patter songs, incisive diction, and alertness to each moment of the text. Bass Ildebrando D’Arcangelo (Alidoro, Prince Ramiro’s tutor) is a Mozart, Rossini, and Verdi specialist, with a repertory that includes three roles — Figaro, Count Almaviva, and Doctor Bartolo — in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, as well as Don Giovanni, Leporello, Escamillo, and Dulcamara. 

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