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September 28, 2009

Opera Vivente opens season with Rossini's 'Cinderella'

Rossini is good medicine for recessions. Washington National Opera opened its season with "The Barber of Seville" a couple weeks ago, generating considerable humor. On Friday night, Opera Vivente jumped into its 12th season with another comic gem by the composer, Cenerentola -- "Cinderella," in this case, as the company always performs in English.

The production, staged by Opera Vivente's general director John Bowen, proved diverting, and things were in decent shape musically, while the basic set (by Thom Bumblauskas) and traditional costumes got the visual job done.

The libretto Rossini used for "Cinderella" isn't quite the same as the one we all know and love, but the basics are still there -- a long-suffering maiden with nasty stepsisters; a surprise entrance at a palatial ball; a prince searching for an unknown beauty who left something behind (a bracelet, rather than glass slipper). The music abounds in cleverness, rivaling "Barber" for tuneful flights and colorful orchestration. 

In the title role, Ann Marie Wilcox could have used more sparkle and spontaneity in her voice at times, but she nonetheless offered considerable style and negotiated coloratura passages deftly. There was something almost matronly in her characterization, though; a more girlish streak wouldn't have hurt. Gran Wilson, as Prince Ramiro, is a much-seasoned tenor, and that background was

evident in the thoughtful way he phrased everything. His voice did show some signs of wear and effort along the way, but his musicality provided abundant compensation.

As Don Magnifico, Cinderella's cruel, drink-inclined father, Christopher Austin produced a round, mostly firm tone and brought a good deal of theatrical flair to the proceedings. Charles Stanton used his rather soft-grained baritone effectively as the prince's magically-powered tutor Alidoro. 

Erica Cochran (Clorinda) and Jessica Renfro (Tisbe) sang brightly as the vain, idiotic stepsisters, but Bowen saddled them with too much of the same physical shtick. There are only so many primping gestures and annoyed facial expressions you can produce before it all wears thin.

More annoying was what happened to the character of Dandini, the prince's valet who pretends to be Ramiro in order to get the lowdown on matrimonial prospects. Bowen has given Dandini the full queeny treatment, a tired cliche that should be permanently banned from opera stages for at least a decade. Baritone Brian Pettey certainly gave it his all, but, here again, the one-note nature of the characterization quickly turned wearying. Vocally, Pettey was a charmer, even allowing for a disappearing low register; his phrasing always had flair.

As tiresome as the prancing and flouncing of Dandini became, it was worse seeing the male chorus likewise mincing about every time they arrived onstage, holding mirrors at the ready for yet another look at themselves. Once again, it was all very heavy-handed and repetitive. These particular choristers might have carried it off had they proven to be better actors, and more solid singers.  

Conductor Philip Lauriat didn't always get everyone on the same rhythmic page, but he drew from the small orchestra enough skill and color to honor Rossini's brilliant score. Joseph Gascho was the excellent harpsichordist for the recitatives. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:27 AM | | Comments (2)


The music was great but we hardly understood a word when they sang. Better to do it in Italian and give us surtitles. I suspect the text was Gilbert&Sullivan clever, but who would know.

It was the same last season when they did "Albert Herring," although I definitely heard more of the text this time (which is why I didn't mention the issue in the review). I suspect that most American singers just don't spend enough time learning how to sing English distinctly. It's difficult, but hardly impossible. Companies that choose to perform in English should, obviously, make a major effort to engage a singers who can do the language justice. TIM

Excellent, to-the-point review. I agree: retire the "full queeney" bit in comic opera for at least a decade. Directors, use your imaginations!

Thanks for the comments. I should add that I understand where this sort of thing can come from in a "Cenerentola" production -- the original libretto has Magnifico wondering at one point if Dandini is proposing marriage to him. But even if a director wants to seize on that to help define Dandini's character, there has to be a more inventive approach than to drag out the pathetic, limp-wristed walking cliche of yore. TIM

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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