Wednesday, November 4, 2015

CitiOpera's La Cenerentola delights with unstoppable vitality at Hawthorn Arts Centre

Kristen Leich as Cinderella and Henry Choo as Prince Ramiro
There is no fairy godmother, no pumpkin transformed into an ornate carriage and no glass slippers in the familiar story of the beautiful young cinder-stained girl called Cinderella in Gioachino Rossini's version, La Cenerentola which premiered in Rome in 1817. Rossini took the magic wand-waving out and instilled comedic realism, but the unmistakeable rags to riches story of liberation from persecution and forgiveness of perpetrator remain deeply on show.

Small independent opera company CitiOpera's new production of La Cenerentola from director Theresa Borg turned the spacious hall of Hawthorn Arts Centre's detailed Victorian classicism into a party-like atmosphere. Borg not only maintains the manic entertaining sharpness of Rossini's two-act operatic dramma giocoso but recycles the story yet again while turning up the frivolity with a delightfully tacky appeal.

With a party-hat-dressed orchestra, a stage festooned with streamers, balloons and fairly lights, and costumes seemingly inspired by the luridly bright fluorescence of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, set and costume designs by Marc McIntyre dazzle and lighting designer Daniel Jow's restless cocktail of colours is a feastly dramatic knockout. It's all achieved effectively on a shoestring, and lots of plastic, paper and rubber.

Taking the drama off the raised proscenium stage to include entrances up the central aisle and from a small balcony, Borg's utilisation of the hall injects an unstoppable vitality to the pacing.

Genevieve Dickson, Carolina Biasoli and Adrian McEniery
It's not entirely clear but Don Magnifico appears to be the lazy and lecherous owner of a tawdry club and his two tarted up, self-obsessed daughters his club hostesses. Stepdaughter Cinderella is one of the premise's chorus of cleaners and her Prince Ramiro, disguised as a valet, is nothing more than a knockabout Mr Nice Guy, comfortable in his Game of Thrones T-shirt, and who appears oblivious to class division. His "servant" Dandini pulls of the charm in disguise as the "prince" and the tutor Alidoro is disguised as a leggy dishevelled drag queen.

Jacopo Ferretti's libretto is sung in Italian and peppered with dialogue in today's English. Despite the royal titles and endearingly fuzzy interpretation on stage, the recycled tale works well. The result is magically applaudable, one where wealth and rank is relative but finding true happiness and escape from persecution is paramount. The bottom line, however, is fun and a zero tolerance for mediocrity is evident.

A splendidly sung and orchestrally rich opening night made certain of that. Occasional loss of projection and imbalances in voice delivery and timing wafted into opening night during ensemble pieces (and a few precarious headpieces and cardboard props wobbled) but the ear was treated to overall beauty.

Kristen Leich as Cinderella
As Cinderella, Kristen Leich gives one of opera's scintillating mezzo-soprano coloratura roles star quality. A soulful, melancholic-dark tone in the voice's lower range captured the persecuted Cinderella marvellously. Leich opened the voice smoothly in the middle and upper range and pleasantly paced her impeccably shaped ornamentation to expose her character's determination and dreams. In Acts II's extended aria "Nacqui all'affanno ... Non piu mesta" Leich reached higher to cut through the orchestra with fluid cyclic register changes in a sensational coloratura display, navigating her way in her zany tulle and clear plastic gown lit up by fairy lights (put together out of the recycling green bin by Alidoro's generous good taste).

It's momentarily uncertain who the guy in the cap and sleeveless padded jacket is when he strays down the central aisle, but he turns out to be part of the cast. In disguise as the valet Dandini, Henry Choo as Prince Ramiro then sets forth with a performance of engaging strength and focus. Young Choo's vocal expertise improves with every new role he tackles and here a personal best seemed on show. An immediate warmth of tone and convincing interpretive attack shone brilliantly in his tenor and, in duet with Leich's Cinderella the pair's chemistry and vocal blending was well-honed. Even their comical dance with golden broomsticks elevated the romance as much as the kiss cementing their union.

Led by a chorus of street sweepers down the central aisle as the disguised "prince", Michael Lampard stepped into his status high position with alacrity as Dandini, his richly burnished baritone impressing while guiding it through momentary insecurities with breathing. Alcohol-fuelled and gladdened by his own skimpy glam-grunge style, Matthew Thomas amusingly strutted on heels all night and sang with no-mess mastery as Alidoro.

Act 1 scene, La Cenerentola
Adrian McEniery made a portentous, ill-mannered Don Magnifico while roaring out Rossini's robust pitter-patter treats. Those ill-manners sometimes overpowered in ensemble but his character could forgivingly steal anything. Genevieve Dickson and Carolina Biasoli, as stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe, managed to get through opening night with the most unmanageable costumes and headpieces with brighter, more harmonised singing the more their hopes of a "royal" marriage was doomed. A chorus of females took easily to the task in voice and broom with a pair of solid male voices curiously planted off-stage beside the orchestra.

Conducting around 20 musicians with celebratory flare, CitiOpera's Artistic Director Trevor Jones dished up Rossini in bucketloads of style. Rossini's recycled overture from his opera La Gazzetta was energised for a magnificent start on opening night and one's attention was easily drawn to the thunderous solid fortes, crispness of tones and thrilling crescendoes throughout. The dancing, textured strings and elegant brass playing were particularly satisfying.

It's CitiOpera's second outing this year at the Hawthorn Arts Centre after presenting a fiery and passionate Cavalleria Rusticana, a sign perhaps that the small independent company's itinerancy will settle there for the medium term. I hope so because it's a fine venue and CitiOpera is looking mighty comfortable in it.

Production Photographs courtesy of CitiOpera

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