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Opera San Jose Opens Season with Frothy Rossini Comedy

San Jose
Montgomery Theatre
09/07/2002 -  7, 8, 10, 13, 14, 15, 17, 19, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28, and 29, September 2002
Gioacchino Rossini: La Cenerentola
Layna Chianakas/Michele Detwiler (Cenerentola), Joshua La Force/Robert McPherson (Prince Ramiro), Joseph Wright/Jason Detwiler (Dandini), David Cox/Kirk Eichelberger (Don Magnifico), Sandra Rubalcava/Lori Decter (Clorinda), Donna Olson/Molly McCabe (Tisbe), Jesse Merlin (Alidoro)
Thomas Muraco/Anthony Quartuccio, Conductor
Stage Director - Bodo Igesz

Of Rossini’s three most frequently performed comedies, La Cenerentola is the most varied and substantial dramatically. As a retelling of the Cinderella story with a pompous stepfather and a benevolent godfather in place of the more familiar wicked stepmother and fairy godmother, Rossini’s opera has scenes of considerable emotional intensity alongside the expected comical scenes. When Cenerentola’s stepsisters and stepfather scoff at her for wanting to go to the ball, they go so far as to deny any familial relationship, rejecting her and belittling her. Hardly the stuff one expects in a frothy Rossinian comedy.
Rossini also fleshes out some of the characters beyond the expected dimensions of most opera buffa of the era. While some of them, particularly the stepfather and the stepsisters are stock comedy caricatures; Cenerentola, the prince and even his valet are given more depth and complexity.
In staging Opera San Jose’s new production and company premiere, stage director Bodo Igesz made these differentiations very clear. Cenerentola (Layna Chianakas) and her prince, Ramiro (Joshua La Force) had a naturalness and simplicity while the stepsisters, Clorinda (Sandra Rubalcava) and Tisbe (Donna Olson) and their father, Don Magnifico (David Cox), were played very-broadly for maximum comic effect. Ramiro’s valet, Dandini (Joseph Wright) straddled these two approaches, highly comical but with a touch of humanity that kept it from being completely cartoonish.
At the performance of September 14, it appeared that more attention had been given to musical preparation and rehearsal than to the staging of La Cenerentola. While there were some moments of genuine creativity, for the most part, Igesz seemed content with basic blocking, neither reining in the excesses (some of the step-sisters’ capers bordered on the grotesque) nor developing underplayed scenes. The storm sequence in Act II was particularly disappointing. Starting out with the usual light show to suggest lightning, the only activity was the appearance of poor Jesse Merlin as Alidoro, who got the short end of the stick in this production. His role shorn of its one aria as well as some important recitative, he was made to speak lines from the aria over the storm music while gyrating and waiving his arms to suggest magical powers. The whole sequence was well below Opera San Jose’s usual level, but the company does have a history of wimping out on staging challenges (the opening of Act Four of Carmen and the ballroom scene in Eugene Onegin are two other such instances that come to mind).
Fortunately, aside from some major cuts in the score, the musical approach was much more satisfying and none of the singers were guilty of wimping out on Rossini’s considerable vocal demands. Conductor Thomas Muraco’s tempi were not recklessly fast as is sometimes the case in contemporary Rossini conducting, but he kept up a lively pace without pushing the singers beyond their capabilities. Occasionally ensembles got out of synch between the pit and orchestra, but only momentarily and for the most part they held together admirably in this ensemble-heavy opera. Balance between stage and pit was well managed and the singers blended and balanced with great consistency on stage.
The big surprise of the evening was La Force’s Ramiro. In the past, this young tenor has sounded too light voiced for anything more than the comprimario roles in which he appeared. But La Force has made a quantum leap forward and was on a par with the other cast members vocally, handling Rossini’s florid writing with panache and style, secure high notes, a full rounded tone and easy access to the bottom of his range. Moreover, with his height and looks, he has the bearing and presence to make for a very convincing prince.
Chianakas’s Cenerentola was gentle and sweet-tempered sometimes bordering on too sweet and gentle, but it made more plausible her willingness to forgive her step-family in the last moments of the opera for all their cruelty. Chianakas too had a firm grasp of the role’s vocal demands - pure, solid high notes, a clean attach, well articulated runs, even tone throughout the range and a legato line in lyric passages. If she can find places to enliven the character’s sweetness with a little temperament, the role will be as vivid as the singing.
Dandini provided Wright with a role eminently suited to his swaggering, confident stage presence. While he oversang his opening aria to some extent, smearing the triplets as a result, he soon adjusted to the scale of the theatre and gave a lively, vocally secure performance. Wright’s facial expressions, he utter ease and security as an actor and his equally easy secure singing are all becoming trademarks for this young singer who continues to make good on the promise of his earlier appearances with the company.
Returning to the company as a guest artist, David Cox combined a droll comical performance with solid singing and musicianship. Cox never stretched his lyric bass beyond its limits but instead achieved fine musical and comical results with wry takes and sly humor. The role has little depth, but Cox resisted the temptation to play too broadly the pomposity and foolishness of the character.
Both Rubalcava and Olson gave in to the temptation to play their roles as cartoon characters and the director appears to have encouraged it. Their excessive hi-jinks were sometimes amusing, but just as often distracting or embarrassing. Neither singer however embarrassed herself musically. While neither of them has much solo singing, but are instrumental in many of the ensembles and both made fine contributions musically throughout.
As Alidoro, Jesse Merlin acquitted himself well despite the fact that his role was reduced to a cipher.
Set designer Julie Engelbrecht provided a functional setting, easily adaptable to the different setting to allow for rapid scene changes, but it captured none of the wit and exuberance of the score. And by depending to heavily on the same set pieces, any sense of contrast between the crumbling abode of Magnifico’s residence and the splendor of the palace was lost. Elizabeth Poindexter’s costumes were considerably more successful, ranging from the bright blocks of color on the more cartoonish characters to the more shaded costumes for the characters with more shading.
The strength of Opera San Jose’s La Cenerentola were considerable and overcame the weaknesses to make for a commendable, creditable production and the response from the audience was clearly one of welcome for this new addition to the repertory.

Kelly Snyder



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