Opera NEO Festival’s Opening ‘La Cenerentola’ Glows in the Golden Triangle

From our contemporary vantage point, old Gioachino Rossini appears to have acquired the patent on comic opera in the early 19th century. That his effervescent opera buffa based on the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola, should have followed his comedic The Barber of Seville in its 1816 sensational opening in Rome is little more than a logical progression.

Brian James Myer (left) & Andrew Morstein [photo courtesy of Opera NEO]

Yet history is seldom so logical. Indeed, Cinderella was not at all on the composer’s radar when he and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti were negotiating with Rome’s Teatro Valle for a new opera to charm the city’s opera crowds for the 1817 carnival season. The Papal censor had rejected the duo’s intended project, Francesca di Foix, and Rossini himself rejected his librettist’s ensuing 20 or so suggestions for another subject for their new opera.

With time running short, Rossini finally acquiesced to Ferretti’s idea of using Charles Perrault’s Cinderella story, and once the composer had the libretto in hand, he whipped up the musical score in less than three weeks. San Diego Opera opened its 2016 season at the Civic Theatre with a splendid La Cenerentola, and San Diego’s Opera NEO opened its current summer festival slate of operas on Friday (August 3) with its more intimate production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola in the Four Flowers Theater at La Jolla Country Day School.

True to its mission, Opera NEO featured promising young artists in a work whose primary characters are also young: Cinderella and her two spoiled sisters, the eligible, dashing prince and his clever valet Dandini. Only the garrulous father, Don Magnifico, and the prince’s wise tutor Alindoro inhabit the older generation.

In Stephanie Doche, Artistic Director Peter Kozma found an admirable Cinderella. Her beautifully modulated mezzo-soprano with its surprisingly brilliant top adapted to every requirement, from the doleful simplicity of Rossini’s imitation folk song “Una volta, c’era un re”—Cinderella’s version of “Whistle While You Work”—to the glorious pyrotechnics of her stunning victory aria, “Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto.” She gave us an admirably earnest Idamante in last season’s Opera NEO production of Mozart’s Idomeneo, but her Cinderella displayed the breadth of her range brilliantly.

I could not get enough of Brian James Myer’s precocious Dandini and his warm, always inviting baritone. Yes, Rossini gave this “servant more clever than his master” stock character abundant personality and vocal display, but Myer shrewdly capitalized on this every nanosecond he was on stage. As Myer put on the airs of blue-blood privilege in his role of acting as decoy for the masquerading Don Ramiro, Prince of Salerno, his newfound hauteur added several inches to his stature and steely authority to his rapid declamation. He never let his character down: even after Don Ramiro revealed his true identity while extolling his love for Cinderella, Myer stood off to the side at a table, busily polishing glassware and smoldering silently as he was forced to resume his lowly station as valet.

Tenor Andrew Morstein displayed the apt frustration of the disguised Prince Don Ramiro having to defer to his valet, and Morstein’s vocal agility met the composer’s unrelenting demanding passages. But without that ingratiating bloom to his ardent cadences, he portrayed a wan suitor to his vocally resplendent Cinderella.

On the other hand, Jared Lesa’s Don Magnifico kept the rafters ringing with his dazzling, robust yet eminently flexible baritone, from his bristling opening cavatina “Miei rampolli femminini” to his unctuous and grandly overconfident aria “Sia qualunque delle figlie.” Soprano Chang Liu’s opulent vocal account of the vain older stepsister Clorinda almost made Cinderella’s cruel half-sibling likeable; mezzo-soprano Miriam Schildkret displayed equal vocal finesse as the younger Tisbe. This duo was careful not to overplay the stepsisters—the libretto itself is sufficiently unflattering to these young women.

Baritone Jason Zacher made a confident, completely unflappable Alidoro, sagely shepherding characters into the sunny happy ending everyone associates with the folk tale and to which both Rossini and Ferretti aspired. The eight men of Don Ramiro’s court produced a vocally vibrant ensemble, and they were equally essential doubling in their role as scene changers.

Following in Mozart’s footsteps, Rossini wrote superb ensembles, and the most exciting moments of this production regularly came in the highly charged quartets and sextets of principals that so often clarified or clinched the drama.

Peter Kozma conducted the orchestra with customary precision and vigor. In the Four Flowers Theater, the instrumental ensemble must play on the same level as the singers, which gives the ample wind section greater heft than usually desirable, although Kozma kept this in check as best he could. The room appeared to amplify the winds and percussion, but not the strings. I will confess that this disparity made me more aware of the felicity of Rossini’s writing for the first chair winds. Kudos especially to Principal Clarinet Sérgio Coelho for many gorgeous cantabile solos and to Michael Sherman, whose fortpiano flourishes in the recitatives were nonpareil.

Faced with a very wide stage in a modest-sized room and Opera NEO’s typical minimal set, Stage Director Ophélie Wolf found inventive ways to arrange her singers to avoid monotony, and her pacing overall proved effective. Mike Peveich’s set relied on colorful scenic projections and two movable walls: one provided a pair of doors to provide an obvious entry and exit for characters, and the other wall simply balanced the former. Symbolism could not have been simpler: Don Magnifico’s crumbling domicile had but one chair and clutter all over the floor. Don Ramiro’s palace had several chairs and no clutter on the floor. And I cannot help but observe that projecting a photo of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles as the background for the Prince’s palace amounted to gilding the fleur-de-lis!

Costume Designer Taylor Payne’s smart contemporary costumes provided a colorful array on a tight budget. Dandini’s sleek Saville Row suit and the stepsisters’ ball gowns—one electric green and the other candy-apple red—proved outstanding, and the bright jewel-toned dress shirts of the Prince’s courtiers added visual relief. During the intermission, I had a serious argument with an extremely knowledgeable opera observer. While I thought Don Ramiro’s suspenders added flare to his understated costume, my colleague thought otherwise.

The new venue for Opera NEO’s productions provided obvious advantages over the outdoor Palisades Amphitheater, including improved audience seating comfort, ability to hear the music without amplification, and enjoying a summer performance in air-conditioned comfort. All of these considerations are indeed valuable, although I felt a tinge of regret losing that upper level at the rear of the Palisades stage that provided previous productions with many a grand entrance and strategic escape.

The Opera NEO Summer Opera Festival opened this production of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” on Friday, August 2, 2019 in the Four Flowers Theater of the La Jolla Country Day School. There are additional performances of this opera on August 3 and August 4 (matinee), and two additional operas, “Eugene Onegin” and “La Calisto” will be presented next week through August 11, 2019, in the same venue.

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