Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) was the most famous opera composer of his time. He composed The Barber of Seville in 13 days (he claimed 12 days) and just one year later he composed La Cenerentola when he was 25 years old.
Rossini believed in the ideals of the Enlightenment and he befriended and worked together with the great Jewish artists and musicians of his time, most notably Giacomo Meyerbeer, Jacques Fromental Halevy and Jacques Offenbach. Late in his composing career, in 1838, he wrote Moses in Egypt, having been drawn to the dramatic story of the Exodus. He was friendly with Cantor Samuel Naumbourg of the Great Synagogue of Paris, and wrote a letter introducing Naumbourg’s collection of Jewish Hymns, including works by Meyerbeer and Halevy, thus introducing grand operatic settings of the liturgy for the first time.
The Washington National Opera’s production of his Cinderella story, La Cenerentola, is the kind of production opera audiences hunger for.
Above all else, opera is about singing, and this cast delivers. Agile in their difficult musical runs and ornaments, they find themselves at home with the manner of bel canto singing.
In the title role, Isabel Leonard, a Grammy winner and the winner of the Richard Tucker Foundation Award in 2013, displays a lush, dark-colored mezzo-soprano of remarkable range and evenness of tone. She shows ease with and confidence in singing this vocally challenging role. Beyond being a beautiful woman (she could be a movie star), the tone quality of her voice is beautiful, complemented by genuine vocal acting and emotional color.
The one flaw here is in the director’s choice not to have her part of the stage antics and physical humor. This is an interpretive choice, but I would have enjoyed seeing her directed to another purpose than affirming the good and forgiving nature of Angelina (Cinderella).
Maxim Mironov (Don Ramiro) a genuine bel canto tenor, sings endless runs and high notes with confidence and panache, creating a believable and noble prince. Both Paolo Bordogna (Don Magnifico) and Simone Albergini (Dandini) lived up to their titles, creating humorous and athletic characters, adding hilarity to their scenes. Each has a rich baritone with good high and low notes, even sound, and beautiful tone quality.
The two sisters, Clorinda (Jacqueline Echols) and Tisbe (Deborah Nansteel), both current members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program, demonstrate comic acting ability as well as fine voices. Echols’ voice is shimmering and lyrical, while Nansteel’s voice is powerful and resonant.
Alidoro (Shenyang), who provides the ball gown and pumpkin carriage to the castle, fulfilling Angelina’s wish, is an internationally renowned bass-baritone who lives up to his reputation with his rich voice, and commanding stage presence.
The orchestra is a tightly molded ensemble under the direction of Italian conductor Speranza Scappucci, making her debut with WNO. Under her able baton, the Rossini score works perfectly with the vocal ensemble, drawing in the listener while never overshadowing the singers. The male chorus also deserves a nod.
Joan Font did a wonderful job directing while making a few choices I disagree with, mainly for Angelina, who was made to appear too far apart from the comic acting.
The production team thought outside the box on the look of this show — a modern stage canvas which at first looks like a Rothko and then transforms as if to suggest a dream state. All of the other elements — lighting, sets and costumes — are sensational. The team of hair and make-up artists supports the colorful opera buffa elements, as well as Angelina’s story of romance and redemption.
The production team and directors understand comedy, high art and low, allowing this production to work on multiple levels, just as the characters themselves frenetically change social status in search of their desires.
When, as the director, Joan Font, writes for the program, love comes to this production, “it arrives from the outside as if by magic, and it is from another social class: the highest.”
Cinderella plays through May 21 at the Washington National Opera performing in the Kennedy Center Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, D.C. For tickets, call (202)-467-4600 or visit kennedy-center.org.
Rabbi Arnold Saltzman is a composer of opera, symphonies and ballet, and the rabbi of three Maryland congregations.