Czech mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená makes her eagerly-anticipated house debut in the Royal Opera’s latest revival of Rossini’s La Cenerentola. Whilst Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser‘s seven year-old production is the model of wit, restraint and ingenuity, the musical performance under the leaden baton of Evelino Pidò fails to catch fire and the necessary lightness of touch is sorely missing.
Rossini’s take on the Cinderella story is not the cockle-warming frothy-dollop of Christmas entertainment the publicity machine of the Royal Opera has been peddling to its punters over the last few weeks. Indeed there is a dark, sinister undertone of resentment, bullying and abandonment that this exemplary production doesn’t shy away from exploring. Like all fairytales there is a dark core at the heart of Rossini’s opera there wasn’t much laughter in the house at the point where Don Magnifico, Cenerentola’s father, informs the Prince (in disguise) and his valet that he only has two daughters, as the third Cenerentola, is dead – when in fact she is standing right in front of him.
That Cenerentola proceeds to forgive her father and her sisters for the atrocious way they have treated her, says much in Rossini’s belief in the human condition and we’re thankful that this isn’t some interventionist production where Cenerentola kills her adversaries at the final curtain (though it’s probably been done this way in Germany at some point).
Whilst the production comes up as fresh as a daisy and remains one of the Royal Opera’s most handsome in Christian Fenouillant‘s designs, the musical performance, whose credentials looked fine on paper, failed to deliver the necessary fizz. The blame must lie at conductor Evelino Pidò’s door as he managed to make the long first act (at 1 hour and 40 minutes the same length as the first act of Parsifal) far too heavy and weighty.
The singing was a mixed bag too. The most assured performance came from the superb Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico and he was rightly awarded the biggest ovation of the night for his totally-rounded and quite faultless performance of this wonderfully written role.
It was a shame that dashing French baritone Stéphane Degout became indisposed during the first act (an apology was made before the second but, trouper that he is, he continued on to the final curtain) as he made an auspicious house debut, displaying his well-schooled baritone voice to telling effect as Dandini. Lorenzo Ragazzo was the epitome of Italian style as Alidoro, whilst you couldn’t wish for a better pair of ugly’ sisters than Leah-Marian Jones and Elena Xanthoudakis.
That leaves the two romantic leads Toby Spence as the Prince and Kožená as Cinders. Spence has a well-schooled tenor voice, but he lacks the variety of tonal colour that is essential to the role and whilst there were some thrilling moments, he was sorely taxed by the high lying tessitura in the second act. Similarly Kožená was more at ease in the lower-lying reaches of the title role, where her gloriously-coloured voice really came into its own, but was less than happy in the work’s rondo finale where her top notes sounded raw and exposed. To be honest I don’t believe either of these two principals has the right kind of voice for this repertoire, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that both are highly-intelligent artists they just need to be seen and heard in the correct roles.