WNO’s ‘Cinderella’: A longish evening of colorful family fun

WNO production's colorful costumes, funny mice, beautiful singing, imaginative staging sometimes thwarted by problematic acoustics. Soprano Isabel Leonard stars.

WNO Cinderella cast.
Washington National Opera: Cinderella cast. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

WASHINGTON, May 10, 2015 – Rossini’s “Cinderella” (better known to Italian opera buffs as “La Cenerentola”) is, like Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and “Magic Flute,” and Puccini’s “La Bohème” and Bizet’s “Carmen,” one of those operas that critics must involuntarily see time and again.

Opera companies schedule these audience favorites and a few others with considerable frequency, as these undyingly (and deservedly) popular operas get those turnstiles turning, creating, at least in the best of times, a profit or breakeven cushion enabling the staging of one or two riskier productions per season.

Isabel Leonard as Cinderella.
Isabel Leonard sings a lovely Cinderella. (Credit: Scott Suchman)

WNO is no exception to this rule. But its current, cartoon-colorful production of Rossini’s early comic masterpiece seems to have an additional aim: making a production that’s so funny and viewer friendly that you can bring your kids—assuming they’re old enough to read the English-language surtitles for this Italian language show. The music is absolutely delightful throughout.

The only possible problem with WNO’s audience-building strategy is that restless youngsters new to opera might find the proceedings more than a bit long, particularly when they’re not allowed to do instant messaging during the show.

We usually try to give a short plot summary for our new-to-opera readers, but that’s not really needed here, since, at least up to this point in Western literary history, most school-age kids (and adults) are already familiar with the oft-used fairy tale that gives this opera its name.

The only variants here are that Cinderella—whose proper name in this case is Angelina—is tormented by an evil stepfather in addition to those two wicked stepsisters. And her fairy godmother here is replaced by a wise old fairy godfather, which somehow seems appropriate for an Italian opera.

This WNO production borrows a well-traveled but still good-looking set that was originally a co-production by the Houston Grand Opera, the Welsh National Opera, the Gran teatre del Liceu (of Barcelona) and the Grand Théâtre de Genève. It’s a large and somewhat cavernous one-size-fits-all affair that begins as a gray, worn out home interior centering on that all-important cindery fireplace. But then, via clever backlighting, it manages to morph into the Prince’s castle ballroom and then back. This relatively spare set does get a little wearying after a time. But it also serves as a plain canvas backdrop that makes Joan Guillén’s primary-color costuming really pop.

As an extra-added attraction, WNO has hired a cast of six dancers to portray a cadre of very emotive and very funny mice, who scamper about this production like a silent chorus, managing in a very mouse-like way to echo the emotions of its characters.

In all honesty, their genuinely funny goings-on often distract from the singers and the opera’s admittedly well known story line. But they’re so kid-appealing, at least in this reviewers opinion, that many a youngster might forget just how long he or she has been glued to that Kennedy Center Opera House seat.

Better yet, the mice may also help hold those usually short kiddie attention spans during this coming weekend’s annual live opera simulcast at Washington Nationals Stadium. So we’re not going to complain, as the time for building tomorrow’s opera audience is now.

As to the production itself, WNO’s singer-actors were all in fine form, particularly the principals who actually carry most of the show. The only problem here: somehow, this otherwise efficient and spacious set frequently absorbed much of what the singers were putting out.

WNO’s singers, at least at this point in their varying careers, would seem to be comfortable in lighter, lyric operas like “Cinderella.” Unfortunately, at least during Saturday’s opening night performance, this resulted in an unintended acoustical mismatch against the very open backdrop of this production’s cavernous set, rendering the vocals virtually inaudible at times. Perhaps WNO can figure out how to compensate for this in the remaining productions.

Wicked Step-family.
Cinderella has a problem with her wicked stepsisters and stepdad. L-R: Deborah Nansteel as Tisbe, Paolo Bordogna as Don Magnifico, and Jacqueline Echols as Clorinda. (Photo by Scott Suchman)

But we had no problem whatever with the quality of NSO’s cast on Saturday. As those very wicked step-sisters Clorinda and Tisbe, soprano Jacqueline Echols (Clorinda) and mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel (Tisbe)—both current members of WNO’s outstanding Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist program—sang wonderfully, further embellishing their roles with a fine comic flair.

Baritone Paolo Bordogna gave us a bit of a different take on evil stepdad, Don Magnifico. Smaller and slighter than the usual basso buffo who takes on this broadly comic (and occasionally nasty) role, Mr. Bordogna’s has-been aristocrat comes across as more petty and small. It’s an interesting interpretation, accentuating the perception by the audience that Magnifico is the very unexceptional and below-the-stairs rustic, not Cinderella.

On the royal side of the story, bass-baritone Simone Alberghini’s role switching valet Dandini played his comic part to the hilt, supporting it with a robust and athletic voice that added some necessary heft to the vocal ensembles as well as his own solo moments.

A hat-tip as well to bass-baritone Shenyang as Alidoro, the Prince’s sometime tutor and ultimately Angelina’s wise fairy godfather. He projected both gravitas and moral authority in this production, a welcome serious center amidst all this opera’s comic nonsense.

Of course, both Alidor and Dandini report to the Prince, Don Ramiro, portrayed here by tenor Maxim Mironov. Mr. Mironov possesses an exquisitely supple, lyrical, almost flowery voice and his singing was perfectly beautiful on Saturday evening. In the early going, he was occasionally buried, vocally, by being positioned too far back on the stage. But he came into his own as the opera progressed.

Finally, we get to our heroine, Angelina, sung in this production by mezzo Isabel Leonard (who will alternate in some productions with Irish-born mezzo Tara Erraught.) Ms. Isabel’s command of Rossini-style vocal ornamentation was fluid and virtually flawless, some of the best singing I’ve heard in this role, joining her primarily cast colleagues in their command of this difficult kind of stylization.

Like the others, Ms. Leonard’s voice was occasional absorbed by the stage setting. But generally, she was positioned farther forward enabling us to hear most of her articulate and nuanced performance of this opera’s big lead role.

In her WNO conducting debut, Speranza Scappucci turned in a generally fine effort leading both the orchestra and the singers on stage, with the extra added bonus of doing the harpsichord continuo parts herself. While the tempo connections between orchestra and singers occasionally went awry, in the main, hers was a fine effort.

Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the great singing and cohesion contributed to this production by the male members of the WNO chorus. We confess to being particularly fond of the choral moments in opera, and this was some of the best, most spirited choral singing we’ve yet heard. Bravo!

Rating: ** ½ (2 ½ stars out of 4)

“Cinderella” continues through May 21 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW, Washington, DC 20566.

Performance dates and times: May 11 and 16 at 7 p.m.; May 13, 15, 19 and 21 at 7:30 p.m.; and May 21 at 2 p.m.

Tickets and information: Tickets range from $25-300. Call the box office at 202/467-4600 or 800-444-1324, or visit the WNO pages at Kennedy-Center.org.

“Opera in the Outfield.” And don’t forget. Individuals and families can view this show for free, via the live simulcast to Washington Nationals Park on May 7 at 7 p.m. Fun and entertainment also available for the whole family, beginning at 5 p.m. And don’t forget that price: Free.


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