With its auditorium at Manhattan School of Music (MSM) undergoing renovation, the MSM Opera Theater brought its production of Gioachino Rossini and Jacopo Ferretti’s “La Cenerentola, ossia La Bontá in Trionfo” (Cinderella or the Triumph of Goodness, 1817) a bit further south, to the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, for four double-cast performances, from April 20 to 22, and with a young, fresh-voiced and enthusiastic ensemble of singers, under Gary Thor Wedow’s baton, and direction by Jay Lesenger, which kept us smiling throughout the evening, the bel canto fairy tale comedy-with-tears triumphed as well. The April 21 evening performance, third of the run, is the one considered here, and featured the singers who also sang on opening night.
As soon as mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu as Cenerentola, or Angelina, and tenor Philippe L’Esperance, as her disguised Prince Charming, Ramiro, sang their first scene duet, “Un soave non so che,” it was clear that something special was happening. These two singers were heard and praised in these pages as leads in MSM’s “La Clemenza di Tito,” in 2016. Hongni Wu, a Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions winner, lent her round rubicund tone and fluency in florid music to her assignment, and brought down the house with her final scena, “Nacqui all’affano” and the rondo “Non più mesta.” Watch for her name—we’ll be hearing much more from her. L’Esperance brought presence and assurance to the high coloratura role of the Prince.
José Luis Maldonado, also heard in MSM’s “Adventures of Vixen Sharp Ears” and “Ziguenerbaron,” was Cenerentola’s buffo, pattering evil stepfather, Don Magnifico. He carried a teddy bear with him, and used it to demonstrate what a good grandfather he thought he would make, in entrance solo “Miei rampolli femminini;” projected vivid sorrow when he announced, falsely, that his third daughter, meaning Cenerentola, had died; became a veritable Bacchus when appointed Head Vintner to the pretend Prince; and did not overplay his line “Che volesse maritarsi con me?” (Surely he doesn’t want to marry me), just before “Un segreto d’importanza”—one that can tip over into something rude and homophobic, if Magnifico conveys disgust, as I’ve seen happen, in this line that gives perhaps the first inkling ever, in opera, of the notion of same-sex marriage.
Dongwei Shen made a sprightly Dandini, the valet, who temporarily deputizes for the Prince, while his highness seeks a mate who would love him, whatever his rank. Kelly Singer and Polixeni Tziouvaras played evil stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe, vain, foolish, and thoroughly ill-mannered, to the hilt. Andrew Henry cleaned up nicely after returning from his disguise as a ragged beggar to enter as emissary of and tutor to the Prince, as well as fairy godfather figure to Cenerentola.
Guided by Wedow, the crescendoing ensembles sparkled, especially the first act finale and the sextet near the end, “Questo è un nodo avviluppato,” with its extravagantly rolled r’s and other explosive sounds in the phrases “un gruppo rintrecciato” and “sgruppa più raggruppa,” and the orchestra shone in the brilliant overture and the later storm music. Lesenger packed everyone and allusions to everything that had ever happened to Cenerentola into that storm scene; gave the courtiers roses for the (fake) Prince to present to the sisters he supposedly considered for marriage, in a hint of “The Bachelor;” and had Don Magnifico, Clorinda, and Tisbe wake up face down on the palace banquet table after the terrible night in which an unknown beauty—Cenerentola—upstaged her stepsisters. Alidoro literally took Cenerentola to the stars for her ball gown and a quartet of dressers to assist her.
Lesenger and set designer Peter Harrison essentially dispensed with a ballroom, setting the palace scenes in its gardens, with the addition of banquet table and chandeliers as needed—and we know, from the action-packed fourth act of “Le Nozze di Figaro,” all that can happen in gardens in operas. Don Magnifico’s baronial mansion was, appropriately, a wreck. Costumes, fantastical or regal, were by Elizabeth Clancy, lighting by Julie Duro, and wigs and makeup by Tommy Kurzman.
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