Arts & Events

New: Rossini’s LA CENERENTOLA Shines in Merola Production

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Sunday August 06, 2017 - 03:27:00 PM

The 2017 crop of Merola singers continues to impress, unveiling seven new young singers in two performances, August 3 & 5, at San Francisco Conservatory of Music of Gioachino Rossini’s musical retelling of the Cinderella story, La Cenerentola. With an artful libretto forged by Jacapo Ferretti, Rossini’s La Cenerentola hinges not on a missing slipper but rather on one of a pair of identical bracelets. If the Prince finds the mate to the bracelet given him by the beautiful but mysterious woman who attends the ball but refuses to tell her name, the Prince will indeed have found his mate. That is, if he can accept the mysterious woman’s lowly status as step-sister and servant in the household of Don Magnifico, who cruelly mistreats his step-daughter in favor of his own two daughters. The only other major change in the Cinderella story is here provided by Alidoro, court philosopher to the Prince, who presides over all events in Rossini’s La Cenerentola, even exercising seemingly mystical cosmic powers to raise up the Cinderella figure, here named Angelina, to her rightful status.  

This Merola production of La Cenerentola was conducted by Mark Morash and was directed by Chuck Hudson. Donald Eastman was Scenic Designer, Christine Cook was Costume designer, and Eric Watkins was Lighting Designer. All of the above did stalwart duty in making this a musically cohesive, delightfully staged production. Pride of place, however, goes to mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey for her interpretation of the role of Angelina, aka Cenerentola. When we first meet Angelina, she sits by the fire in her kitchen and sings to herself a wispy little song, “Una volta c’éra un re”/”Once upon a time there was a king.” Singing quietly, and low in the mezzo register, Hankey’s voice does not immediately impress. But, oh my, when she moves up the register and lets loose her voice, Samantha Hankey reveals glorious tone, impressive high notes, and superb vocal technique. Her coloratura is a thing of beauty! Moreover, Hankey is a fine actress, one who dramatically portrays the goodness, innocence and graciousness of her Cinderella character. Samantha Hankey is definitely a singer to watch! 

As Prince Ramiro tenor Anthony Ciaramitaro displayed a robust voice full of power, though lacking somewhat in color. Vocally, he gave a monochrome interpretation of the Prince. Whether badgering his valet, Dandini, imperiously cutting short the pompous Don Magnifico, or falling head over heels in love with Angelina, Anthony Ciaramitaro as Prince Ramiro sang with force and conviction, if not with great subtlety. However, the duet “Un soave non so che” between the disguised Prince and Angelina when they each feel the first pangs of love for one another, was movingly sung by Ciaramitaro and Hankey. Of the other characters, bass-baritone Christian Pursell gave a multi-hued portrayal of Dandini, the valet who spends the early part of La Cenerentola disguised as the Prince, a ploy by the Prince to allow him to observe in secret the various women who hope to be his bride. Pursell may have over-acted a bit, for which he is chided by the Prince disguised in turn as Dandini the valet. But Pursell has great comic flair, which was evident in his Act II introduction to a duet with Don Magnifico about “Un segreto d’importanza.” Pursell even used multiple voices, breaking into falsetto at one point to imitate the cloying caterwauling of the sisters Tisbe and Clorinda.  

As for these latter, they were as usual portrayed as fawning, vain, and ambitious airheads vying with one another in hopes of winning marriage to the Prince. As Tisbe, Edith Grossman displayed a dusky mezzo-soprano to fine effect; and as Clorinda soprano Natalie Image offered a bright, often comically squealing voice that was spot on for this role but not exactly the kind of voice she will display in other roles. (Natalie Image will sing Lucia in a duet from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor on August 19 in the Merola 2017 Grande Finale; and that role might give us a more insightful account of Natalie Image’s voice than does the role of Clorinda in La Cenerentola.) The father of these airhead sisters, Don Magnifico, was admirably sung by bass-baritone Andrew Hiers, who like Christian Pursell as Dandini, offered a multi-hued interpretation of his role. The Don Magnifico of Andrew Hiers was now mean and nasty, now pleading and vulnerable, and, finally, at the end of the opera, grateful toward his step-daughter, Angelina, who graciously forgives both her step-father and her step-sisters for their earlier mistreatment. Finally, in the role of Alidoro, who is usually portrayed as a kind of eminence grise happily moving people around but staying behind the scenes, Polish bass-baritone Szymon Wach often took center stage in this production. Singing robustly, Wach portrayed Alidoro as an almost omniscient godlike figure, one who can even muster cosmic powers to set the world right. It is through Alidoro’s actions at every step along the way that Angelina is singled out to become the wife of Prince Ramiro.  

Director Chuck Hudson moved his singers continuously about the stage so there was hardly a dull moment. However, his oft-repeated gag of having Angelina suddenly come face-to-face with Prince Ramiro and in her rapt confusion drop a tray of glassware, was grossly overdone. (It occurred at least four times in Act I and at least once more in Act II.) The famous storm scene in Act II was cleverly staged with characters carrying colorful umbrellas that threatened to carry off their holders with the sudden gusts of wind. Lighting Director Eric Watkins supplied dramatic lighting effects for this storm scene, which was a visual as well as orchestral highlight of this production. Vocally, of course, Rossini’s La Cenerentola is full of florid coloratura passages, especially for Angelina; and her high-flying aria “Naqui all’affano” toward the opera’s end was gorgeous indeed. Likewise, the ensembles of this opera were also splendidly effective, perhaps especially the quintet at the end of Act I and the sextet near the close of the opera. Throughout this production of La Cenerentola, Conductor Mark Morash led a taut, rhythmically supple interpretation of Rossini’s brilliant score. All told, this was a thoroughly delightful La Cenerentola.