Rags to Riches

Cinderella (La Cenerentola)
Minnesota Opera

Among all the great opera composers, Rossini seems to be the easiest to screw up. I say this having squirmed through more bad Rossini performances than I would care to enumerate. The Minnesota Opera has crossed a narrow tightrope in its production of Rossini's La Cenerentola, and the production sends its audience into a delighted frenzy that is quite rare even in this excitable realm.

Cenerentola is the Cinderella story minus the supernatural interventions; in their place is an added emphasis on the aristocratic pretensions of Cinderella's stepfamily and the egalitarian generosity and goodness of heart of Cinderella (here called Angelina). "You are worthy of the throne but the throne is not worthy of you," sing the courtiers in the finale: Needless to say, it's a riotously funny show, with a precision of comic musical gesture that is uniquely Rossini's.

So many aspects of this Cenerentola have gone right that it's hard to know where to begin. Next to Rossini's, the beneficent presence hovering over the show is that of the late director and designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, whose well-traveled settings--with their deep, monochrome perspectives and costumes--look fresh and endearing as they near their 30th birthday. You can't improve on a classic, and Ponnelle's visions of Rossini are classics indeed.

Christopher Alden--a Ponnelle protégé--directs this production and it's a loving homage, one which reprises the much-renowned Ponnelle buffo style, while adding some equally hilarious (and utterly harmonious) tropes of its own. As side-splittingly funny as this Cenerentola is, what makes it funnier still is how the comedic impulse springs from the witticisms in the text; when Prince Ramiro's retainers sing of his being the last of his lineage, the roses in their hands droop. The stage action is like a visual music, whether prompted by a droll bassoon solo or Rossini's characteristically manic brand of energy.

This flows bouncily from the baton of Barbara Yahr, an inspired choice of conductor, who captures the tensile springiness inherent in Rossini's score as adeptly as she limns its delicate pathos. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra plays lovingly for her, with a fine instrumental blend, nuanced and witty delivery, and sizzling reserves of power when cut loose, as in the thunderstorm that ultimately brings hero and heroine together.

All of this would go for naught without a capital Angelina, which the show has triumphantly in the person of Vivica Genaux: Her burnt-ochre tones fill the Ordway (as the heavily hyped Cecilia Bartoli failed to do in her 1996 recital). Genaux says she thinks in phrases rather than notes, and that's how she sings--with a seamless flow and Mediterranean tone reminiscent of the adored soprano Teresa Berganza. No less noteworthy is Genaux's communication of Angelina's goodness: a human, down-to-earth warmth that emanates irresistibly from within.

It's a measure of Genaux's art that she can hold her own with her raffishly scene-stealing stepsisters as played by Elisabeth Comeaux and Kathleen Humphrey. Their immaturity comes in comically contrasting forms: Comeaux's neurotic brat claws away at Humphrey's proto-Marie Antoinette.

The delusional stepfather, Don Magnifico of Montefiascone, is one of the great buffo roles of all time, replete with three (count 'em) showpiece arias. Henry Runey is among the magnificent Magnificos: a capacious, first-caliber voice that joyfully inhabits Rossinian bluster. It's right in sound, nuance, and self-regard.

Eric Owens displays a similarly booming bass and stage-friendly personality as Alidoro, the court philosopher who fills the fairy godmother role, but his voice lacks comparable finish, creaking in the top register. Peter Halverson, though, notches a career high as Dandini, the valet who switches identities with the prince. Oozing faux-regal narcissism, Halverson never misses a musical corner with his lovely baritone; whether comic or fulsomely lyric, his fluency in florid music equals Genaux's.

Lest we grow dizzy with superlatives, Bruce Fowler's hero brings one precipitously back to earth. His tenor is basically pleasant, with ringing climaxes. However, his minimal stage presence and damaging lack of dramatic or--worse still--musical imagination leave a well-meaning void. Only Genaux can ennoble him.

Well, it probably wouldn't be opera somehow if the tenor weren't a stick. But don't let me rain on the parade: Cinderella (La Cenerentola) belongs on the short list of great achievements at the Minnesota Opera, one in which musical and dramatic values are not competing elements but spring from the same impulse. Every challenge has been met at or near the highest possible level and for that it only remains to give thanks.

The Minnesota Opera's Cinderella (La Cenerentola) runs through Sunday at the Ordway Theatre; call 224-4222.

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