Pittsburgh Opera Retells an Age-Old Fairytale

Saturday night’s production of Rossini’s comic opera La Cenerentola offered everything I have come to expect from the Pittsburgh Opera’s season finales.  There were zany wigs, madhouse slapstick antics, cleverly scripted breaches of the fourth wall and, much to my delight, the wild and crazy Paolo Pecchioli as Cenerentola’s “evil” step-father, Don Magnifico.  I last saw Pecchioli in 2012’s, Abduction from the Seraglio, in which he was cast as the absurd Osmin, the Pasha Selim’s bodyguard.  This year, Pecchioli has returned with a refreshing characterization of Don Magnifico, bonded with Pecchioli’s own very personal form of movement and physical comedy, which, if you will forgive the contradiction, non-invasively steals the show.  Thankfully, Mr. Pecchioli is also in possession of a fine instrument and musical ability, as can occasionally be a crippling imbalance with buffo actors.  Of course, Mr. Pecchioli was not the only highlight of the evening, as this production of Rossini’s adored retelling of Cinderella boasted a well-balanced and impressive cast.

Cinderella’s half-sisters Clorinda and Tisbe (Resident Artists Meredith Lustig and Samantha Korbey) make fun of Don Magnifico (Paolo Pecchioli, center), Cinderella’s stepfather, after he describes his dream of a flying donkey.

The shining diamond of the evening was, very appropriately, Vivica Genaux as Angelina (Cenerentola/Cinderella), whose casual mastery of coloratura made Rossini’s frequently virtuosic vocal passages seem like so much causal banter.  Her genuine and sweet-faced characterization, along with her prodigious instrument was perfectly matched by tenor Arthur Espiritu, himself a former Resident Artist of the company and further evidence of General Director Christopher Hahn’s laser ability to single out rising stars for inclusion in this program.  Current Resident Artists Samantha Korbey and Meredith Lustig provoked more than a few laughs as Tisbe and Clorinda, Cenerentola’s yucky step-sisters, though in comparison to their cast-mates their voices did not cut as effectively and often seemed lost in the action.  Baritone Joseph Barron closed the trio of Resident Artists as Don Ramiro’s clever tutor, Alidoro, who is responsible for orchestrating the elaborate masquerade central to Rossini’s modification of the Cinderella story.  In the pivotal role of footman-turned-prince Dandini, baritone Daniel Mobbs complimented the soaring abilities of Ms. Genaux and Mr. Espiritu, and acted with grace and comfort.  The highlight for me was Dandini’s initial entrance, while he is masquerading as the prince, dressed in a ridiculous red frock coat and top hat, flanked by a detachment of men in tails, head cocked to the side and teeth sparkling.  I admit it squeezed out of me a rather embarrassing and uncontrolled guffaw.

My only real criticism of the show lies with Maestro Rossini; it’s just a little too long.  Music director Antony Walker’s tempi were, at times, a bit sluggish, though I did catch the maestro’s left hand leap into view a number of times as it appeared he was trying to wrangle-in the actors and keep from losing steam.  That said, the opera orchestra sounded neat and tidy, and as well as I have heard them perform this season, thanks largely to Mr. Rossini’s pleasing orchestration.  At times, the staging (overseen by veteran director Kristine McIntyre) seemed a bit sparse and felt somewhat deserted.  In moments when I was hoping for a lavishly staged party at the prince’s palace something seemed a bit off-putting in finding nothing but an army of tuxedoed men pacing around Don Magnifico’s three young daughters.  Then again, the blame may effectively be diverted again to Rossini and his librettist, Jacopo Ferretti, for creating such a weird imbalance of men and women in the play.  A highlight for me was the elaborately choreographed dinner table scene at the close of act one, during which the central cast confesses that they all feel as though they are lost in some fanciful dream.

Erhard Rom’s set design was impressive, and I found his economical scene changes to be particularly effective, though the grand scale only served to emphasize Ms. McIntyre’s occasionally lonely staging.  James Schuette’s colorful costumes were quite pleasing, though I would have liked to see a little more variety in the chorus of Don Ramiro’s men.

All in all, the Pittsburgh Opera’s La Cenerentola makes for a fun night out and, if for no other reason, missing this chance to hear Ms. Genaux’s masterful technique as Rossini’s Cinderella would be a regrettable mistake.

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