Metropolitan Opera 2013-14 Review - 'La Cenerentola:' Joyce DiDonato, Javier Camarena & Superstar Cast Deliver Magical Performance of Rossini's Cinderella Story
It is Belcanto season at the Metropolitan Opera. The company recently premiered Bellini's "I Puritani," and on Monday, April 21, it added another major Belcanto staple to its spring repertoire. That revival was Rossini's "La Cenerentola," a retelling of the famous Cinderella story. The performance was notable because it featured superstar mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato taking on the title role and also showcased the return of tenor Javier Camarena as her lover. Camarena was not originally scheduled to sing the run, but the illness of superstar tenor Juan Diego Florez coupled with Camarena's breakout turn in "La Sonnambula" earlier this year enabled the Mexican singing actor to get a second chance to shine at the celebrated opera house.
It is essential to note that this is no ordinary Cinderella story. While the story does showcase the rise of a servant to the position of being the princess, there are a number of staples of the story that make no appearance or are altered. There is no missing glass slipper (the prince has to find a twin bracelet in this version) and a fairy godfather replaces the fairy godmother. The prince also switches places with his valet to find out the true identities of Cenerentola's villainous sisters.
The production by Cesare Lievi combines the best of both the modern and traditional theatrical aesthetic in a well-balanced package. The set itself remains a monochromatic blue throughout with only a few lighting effects changing the stage's "color" to red during Don Magnifico's scene of inebriation. Since this is a fairytale, the production also pulls out a numerous stops to create a sense of magic throughout. Alidoro flicks his wrist and a number of messengers show up out of the floor and nearby doors in eye-popping quickness. In another scene the walls upstage open up to reveal the flying donkey of Magnifico's dreams. When Alidoro reveals himself as an angel from heaven to Cenerentola a crane hook descends from above carrying a huge dresser that contains her dress; she steps inside and is lifted out of view as the curtain descends on the opera's first act. A storm dominates the final act and at one point fire erupts from nothing. The final scene features a massive wedding cake that the two lovers stand atop as the current descends.
These effects are wondrous, but they pale in comparison with the brilliant choreography throughout. After the prince reveals his scheme to all of the characters in the work, they remain stunned and fixed in place as is customary in most Rossini operas after a major revelation. The prince takes out a thread from Cenerentola's pocket and starts wrapping all of the other characters in it and pulling them close together; even in this moment he is manipulating their feelings. During the Act 1 stretta, the characters engage in a hilarious battle of musical chairs as they try to gain the fake prince's attention. The only ones undisturbed by the ruckus are Cenerentola and the real prince, who are lost in their own private moment. At the apex of the stretta, Magnifico picks up a bowl of pasta and starts throwing it around in desperation before grabbing some and preparing to stuff it down his throat.
DiDonato is arguably the most famous interpreter of the role at the moment, but she had never sung it at the Met until Monday night. The character is a pure angel (as her other name Angelina suggests) and it is rare to see a performance that showcases her as more than a suffering seraph with no control over her own destiny. The libretto does not help matters as Cenerentola is helped out by all the other male characters every step of the way and her only major moment of decisive action is when she begs for the forgiveness of her family. But DiDonato managed to showcase the struggle of the character and emphasized that her strength was inherent from the very beginning of the work. She does not simply accept her fate, but aspires to overcome it and save herself in some way by standing up to her greatest adversaries.
From her first entrance, DiDonato's Cenerentola had a delicate angelic quality. As she sang her mournful song ("Una volta c'era un re"), her voice was a tiny sliver of sound and her upward gaze gave off the idea that she was praying for some relief out of her dreadful situation. Later in the scene was she knelt before the fake prince (aka Dandini) and begged him to let her go to the prince's ball. The thin color in her voice coupled with her sweet manner made her come off as a child begging for some release; she did not just want to go to the dance to just have fun, but was practically begging for someone to save her from her slavery. But even this was not the character at her most sorrowful. Moments later, Magnifico beat and humiliated her in front of the crowd. As she lay on the floor, it was noticeable that her eyes were moist and her voice wept beautifully; it was impossible not to feel the character's sense of humiliation. During her first encounter with the real prince (still disguised as a valet), DiDonato managed to imbue Cenerentola with the timidity of a love-stricken schoolgirl while also slowly revealing her burgeoning passion. Her voice would fluctuate from its soft tone and eventually explode with euphoric sound on sforzato high notes. Throughout this scene, she slowly inched toward him, but would quickly back away as soon as she made eye contact with him, emphasizing that she was still not ready to take her destiny into her own hands.
As noted above, DiDonato made sure to imbue her Cenerentola with a sense of purpose and fight. After her sisters mocked her for singing, she turned around, walked up to them and started to sing right at them with greater strength and volume. When her stepsisters called her to do chores, her voice had a sarcastic bite to it, and later on, she grabbed her stepfather's hat and ran around the living room away from him while spinning soaring coloratura flawlessly. When she appeared at the ball in her stunning purple dress she seemed like a stronger woman. She was regal and confident, but far from manipulative. She gravitated toward the "valet" while ignoring flirtatious behavior from Dandini and aggression from her stepsisters and stepfather. DiDonato's voice in these scenes was far stronger and firmer; the power expressed the character's renewed sense of poise and control.
But her return in the third act brought back the sweet girl from the start, albeit with new complexity and nuance. As she sang "Una volta c'era un re" again, her voice was filled with a newfound yearning and her gaze was not upward but earthbound; it was no longer a prayer but something more passionate and pained. The king referenced in the text of the song was no longer a vague abstraction but a very real person for DiDonato's Cenerentola. But this all turned to pure tenderness in the work's final scenes. As she begged for forgiveness for her family, DiDonato's Cenerentola knelt before the real prince and her silky voice pleaded with gentility. And in the final aria, she walked over and embraced her stepfather and sisters. Her singing here showcased the character's full arc beautifully. The aria started off with DiDonato caressing every phrase with utmost affection; and yet there was a ping of nostalgia that harkened back to the character's sad existence at the start of the work. As the aria developed and melodic line evolved into more ornamental and virtuosic fare, the intensity and happiness of the character came to the fore. At one point during the cadenza of the aria, she created a wondrous trill that started off with a clear portamento between the two notes before blending together into a delicious ornament. The final "La sorte mia cangio" featured a beautiful diminuendo that hovered at its apex for a few moments before slowly fading into a sublime nothingness. The bravura-laden "Non Piu Mesta" was Belcanto feast for the listener as DiDonato threw off every coloratura ornament with incredible precision; the scalar phrases crescendoed and diminuendoed with uncanny flexibility. The final high B was triumphant in its execution and wrapped up what was a deeply moving portrayal of the often one-dimensional character.
Tenor Javier Camarena rose to stardom at the Met earlier this season when he showed off his versatile voice in "La Sonnambula" opposite Diana Damrau. The tenor has the agility and range of a Rossini tenor, but he also has heft and weight that gives his voice an added dimension; the 38-year-old tenor is in full control technically and utilized his glorious instrument to its full effect throughout in the role of the prince Ramiro. This was ever present during the climactic aria "Si, rivolarla io giuro" where his singing was filled with sublime phrasing. At "che mi lusinghi almeno," he made a made a glorious rubato on "almeno" that also featured a diminuendo on the phrase's highest note and the subsequent coloratura. His voice then strengthened throughout the ensuing "Ah, come al labbro e al seno" with the singing finding a breathtaking intensity on the word "labbro" before slowly sweetening up for the final "seno." The "ti stringero" also showcased an elegant diminuendo on the ascending phrase. During the ensuing section of the aria, Camarena showcased his virtuosic with wild abandon. His coloratura was vibrant and his voice was filled with incredible intensity that rang throughout the high C. During the repeated section he held the high C for even longer than the first duration and then ornamented it up to a high D that he held for a rather lengthy moment without any sign of difficulty. At the climax of the aria he held the high C throughout the entire orchestral coda and received the longest and more ardent applause of the entire evening.
One fascinating aspect of Camarena's performance on Monday was that he was able to showcase his brilliant acting and characterization in a way that was not as noticeable in "Sonnambula." His performance as the Prince Ramiro emphasized the noble nature, but also his more volatile and no nonsense attitude. He joked with Dandini over their ploy, but was less patient with him when the valet took the joke too far. At one point, Dandini started chucking his coat, hat and walking stick at the Prince and his reaction was one of tremendous annoyance. It almost seemed as if he was ready to chide his valet, but he suddenly stopped himself to avoid destroying the plan. During the scenes in which Cenerentola was harassed by her sisters and Magnifico, there was a seeming desire to save her and Camarena's voice here resorted to its darker and heavier nature to showcase the prince's frustration at being unable to help her. In the climatic moment when he finally saves her from her kin, his voice almost sounded like that of a more dramatic tenor as Camarena created a visceral and dark tone that made Ramiro a menace to behold; this added notable tension to the scene and made Cenerentola's heroic plea all the more remarkable. At this particular moment, Camarena's Ramiro actually bent down with a elegant motion to bring himself to the same level as Cenerentola; a nice touch that enhanced the connection between the two characters. Camarena had a few other moments that showed the more boyish nature of the character, particularly during the "Zitti, Zitti, piano, piano" duet with the baritone in which the two took turns trying to assert their dominance but still maintaining a sense of joviality.
Alessandro Corbelli has taken on the role of Don Magnifico many times at the Met, but he seems to get better every single time. He really embraced the exaggerated portrayal of the character, but made him more than just a silly caricature. There was aggressiveness in this portrayal that made him all the more dangerous. He hit his daughters as he narrated his dream (in fact the first action he does on stage is throw a pillow at them) and really turned up the violence when he beat Cenerentola in front of everyone near the end of the first scene of Act 1. Throughout this scene he seemed intent on hitting her even more but was constantly thwarted by Dandini and the Prince. But the portrayal did have a lot of lightness to it to offset the darker behavior. He threw pasta around in frustration and even sidestepped away from Dandini after considering the possibility that the "prince" might want to marry him instead of his daughters. Corbelli's singing was another wonderful example of great Belcanto singing in an evening that was filled with it. The narration of his dream "Miei rampolli femminini" was a mixture of mystery and aggression. He had no qualms about slowing down certain phrases to exaggerate the storytelling, but his voice exploded with menace as he chided his daughters for awakening him ("Col ci ci col ciu ciu"). His showcase of the scene in the wine cellar was a masterpiece of acting and singing. He walked about drunk and constantly "drank" from a number of bottles while managing to fit in the singing between each "chug." A word must also be mentioned for the terrific pattering that Corbelli exhibited during his second-act aria "Sia qualunque delle figlie" as it emphasized his marvelous technique and brilliant articulation of the text.
Pietro Spagnoli was another scene-stealer as Dandini the valet/fake prince in his Met debut. His initial entrance was filled with exaggerated pomposity as he threw his articles of clothing at Ramiro and attempted to showoff by balancing his walking stick on his hand while walking about the stage; at a later moment he tried to catch his top hat in the stick but missed. During his opening aria, his voice soared with wondrous flourish and his brilliant baritone rang through the hall. He was a true showman in every possible way; the phrasing was not only elegant but featured fire-cracking coloratura that made him seem like a heroic prince (at least vocally). His transition to the valet in Act 2 was actually quite interesting in its dramatic contrast. If he seemed like a clown of sorts while acting like the prince, Dandini took on a more fatherly character when he transformed into the valet. He was sought out for comfort by Angelina during the climactic scenes and treated her with strong affection. He remained fixed in one spot for lengthy periods expressing a more grave and stable character that had not been showcased in the early scenes as the fake prince. The duality enhanced the character and allowed his exaggerations to not only come off as more humorous, but also made them feel more real in the grander scheme of the performance. He was not simply a jokester, but a serious man relishing his opportunity to step out of his everyday labor and truly be king for a day.
Luca Pisaroni was solid as Alidoro and made him a regal figure throughout. His singing was elegant, though his coloratura was a bit muddled during his first act aria. His voice on his high notes also seemed to lose the earthy color of the rest of his voice, but it did little to deter from his otherwise engaging turn as the fatherly Alcindoro. His stoic nature made him a fantastic contrast to the energetic and violent Magnifico, adding a dramatic dimension and texture to the overall performance.
Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Risley gave hilarious performances as Cenerentola's nasty sisters Clorinda and Tisbe. The two actresses pushed the two characterizations to the limits of realism, but their often caricature portrayals provided a solid counterpoint to DiDonato's complex Cenerentola; this was akin to the aforementioned doubling of Alcindoro and Magnifico. The two singing actresses were a wonder to behold as they constantly came up with new ploys and ways to make their respective characters become the joke of the story.
Conductor Fabio Luisi conducted a polished rendition of Rossini's energetic score. Every instrument in the orchestra was given ample opportunity to shine. The horns, which have struggled under other conductors, were at the top of their game throughout the night. However, there were moments where it felt as if Luisi was not letting the orchestra reach its full expressive potential. The conductor's rendition of the overture started off a bit slow and lagged throughout the introduction. Even though the tempo picked up after there seemed to be a bit of a restraint on the energy of the piece, especially at the climax when it felt that the orchestra could still reach another level of frenzied energy. In contrast, the storm in the second act was filled with lush detail and did have the rush of intensity that was seemingly lacking for most of the overture.
The Met's revival of "La Cenerentola" is one of the finest displays of riveting Belcanto that the company has put on in the last few years. The performance features a fine blend of tremendous humor as well as complex performances (both vocally and dramatically) from its wondrous cast.
The work has five performances remaining, including a final one on the last day of the 2013-14 season. It is truly the perfect way for the Met to send off what has been an unforgettable season.
Subscribe to Latin Post!
Sign up for our free newsletter for the Latest coverage!