Sometimes there’s nothing quite as satisfying on stage as seeing a few good clowns do their best to make a Saturday night fly by.
The Palm Beach Opera’s current production of Giaochino Rossini’s La Cenerentola has, in addition to a hugely impressive performance by the celebrated mezzo Vivica Genaux as the title character, some very fine comedy in its two and half hours. It’s the kind of broad high spirits that makes for deep laughter; somehow we don’t get enough of it at the opera, and it came as a welcome tonic.
In addition to Genaux, there was creditable vocal work from all seven principals in this relatively modest production, and most of it a good bit better than that. The Kravis Center house Saturday night was roughly half-full, but it was a house that laughed throughout, taking a willing part in the arc of this familiar tale.
Director Mario Corradi staged this with a light hand in front of a simple, plain set borrowed from the Minnesota Opera. There was some funny business built in ― a cartoon-style chasing out of Don Magnifico by Dandini that went from wing to wing ― but most of the time he was content to stay out of the way of his performers and let them do their best.
Genaux, the Alaskan-born mezzo who has made a significant career for herself in the past decade or so with specialist Baroque repertoire (particularly that of the unfairly neglected Johann Adolf Hasse), demonstrated an exceptionally polished technique to go with the dark, distinctive voice that has made her a standout. The first sign of that was in the Act I duet O soave no so che with Ramiro , during which she made short, polished work of Rossini’s florid roulades, and by the time she got to her closing Act II aria, Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto, she was in bravura territory.
Writing like this was typical of the early decades of the 19th century, but it’s hard to make it sound natural these days (though it’s had something of a return in the gospel-inflected melismatics of today’s pop singers, for whom extravagant vocal decoration of a single note or phrase is a point of competitive honor). Genaux gave the swooping scales and acres of very fast notes not just power and accuracy, but a sense of logic and finality.
The role of Angelina requires a much more modest, limited kind of acting than the comedic principals, and Genaux carried it off nicely. There was room for her to go a little farther in the final scene as the princess bride; inhabiting her new station would be occasion for a little more great-ladyism and a little less just-folks. Yet in that final scene, Genaux showed beautifully from a singing standpoint why this is a starring role.
Her Prince Ramiro was the young American René Barbera, and he has the kind of muscular spinto that’s ideal for this music. In the Act II set piece, Si, ritrovarla io guiro, he had strong high Cs to spare (surely there is a Fille du Régiment in his future), and showed how big a voice he really has when he needs to command the action. It’s a voice with an attractive color, too, and it betrayed little if any sign of strain. Like Angelina, this is not a role that calls for major acting chops, and while he was generally stiff, it fit the character well.
The real joy of this opera is in the comedic roles, and in Bruno Praticò’s Don Magnifico, Palm Beach Opera had a classic embodiment of this role that was exemplary in every way. Many a marvelous Magnifico has trod the boards since this opera was new in 1817, but there was something definitive about the Italian baritone’s performance that made it the most satisfying Magnifico I can remember.
I think this is because Praticò made his character recognizably human, rather than an all-out buffoon. He has a big, rich baritone voice that carries beautifully even from the deader downstage spots of the Dreyfoos Hall stage, and he could be clearly heard in the numerous ensemble pieces. He is a wonderful comic actor, someone who knows exactly how to use his body to help express the feelings of his character, and he also did amusing things with his vocal inflection, such as when he temporarily loses the power of speech during the scene when he finds out who Dandini really is.
That scene (Un segreto d’importanza) was a moment of comedic triumph as well for Dandini, sung here by another Italian baritone, Bruno Taddia. At the moment of truth, when Dandini places his hand on Magnifico’s leg, just before Magnifico asks Is he trying to marry me?, the two let the laughter build to uproarious levels and moved on at just the right moment. Taddia’s performance was acted marvelously throughout, and like Praticò he proved skilled in the use of his physical comportment to drive the action and seal the jokes.
Vocally, he has a clean but rather soft baritone, and in several sections of the score he sounded unfocused; perhaps he was holding back in order to preserve a compromised instrument. It took some of the bite of the character away to have his voice fade like that, which it tended to do in at the end of display passages. Nonetheless, he may have been the favorite performer in the show Saturday night; the audience cheered him a bit more lustily than they did anyone else.
As the sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, soprano Alexandra Batsios and mezzo Shirin Eskandani were delightful. They made an excellent comedic pair, working off each other expertly at every turn, and especially in charming bits of foolery such as a vaudeville-like step-by-step sideways creep-up and creep-back in the Act II Questo è un nodo avviluppato.
These are also substantial singing roles, and Batsios and Eskandani, both members of the company’s Young Artists troupe, showed themselves fully capable of handling these difficult assignments. Eskandani, a Canadian of Iranian extraction, has been good in everything I’ve seen her in during her two years with the company, and Batsios, an American, has a tightly focused voice that stood out in the mass ensembles as well, weakening slightly only at the very end.
The American bass Matthew Burns did a good job with the relatively thankless role of Alidoro, the male fairy godmother of the story. He has a warm, solid low voice that was pleasant to listen to, but that could also use a little more presence to give this role some more impact.
The Palm Beach Opera male chorus, which has a lot to do in this show, was very good in general, with a sharp, youthful sound appropriate for a bunch of princely courtiers. There were occasions, though, when things were not together with the orchestra, such as parts of the Act I finale, which detracted somewhat from the charm of the music.
Conductor Will Crutchfield led the music ably, with nice crisp tempos, and the Palm Beach Opera orchestra responded with skill and vigor. In the big solo moments such as Angelina’s final aria, he made sure to keep the accompaniment well down to give the singer plenty of opportunity to shine. The biggest difficulty was the occasionally imprecise ensemble work, in which it took the singers a few seconds to figure out where the beat was so everyone could get in gear.
Erhard Rom’s clever sliding walls made the transitions from Don Magnifico’s house to the prince’s palace memorable, and costumes, lighting and makeup all contributed admirably to the overall effect.
The Palm Beach Opera’s lineup for its 52nd season in 2014 was announced Friday. The company will open with Verdi’s Macbeth from Jan. 24-26, Rossini’s Barber of Seville from Feb. 21-23, and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann from March 21-23. This Friday and Saturday, the company presents an abridged version of a new American opera, Ben Moore’s Enemies, in its One Opera in One Hour series at the Harriet Himmel Theater at CityPlace in West Palm Beach on Friday night, with an encore Saturday night at the Lighthouse ArtsCenter in Tequesta. Call 833-7888 for more information.