"There was once a handsome king," sang mezzo-soprano Wendy White tonight, and the world's most popular fairy tale was launched on a sparkling performance. It was Rossini's "Cinderella" -- not "Cenerentola" this time, since it was sung in the lucid, witty translation of Ruth and Thomas Martin, with a gratifying percentage of the words coming clearly across the footlights.
For this production, the Baltimore Opera company has moved into the Peabody Conservatory's Friedberg Auditorium -- a pleasant, acoustically clear, medium-sized hall where it will give 10 performances through Jan. 13.
It is a bright, funny, musically skilled production -- a shade less dazzling than the La Scala and Washington Opera performances that have played at the Kennedy Center, but heartily enjoyable. For those who take a special delight in Rossini's scintillating masterpiece, it is well worth a trip to Baltimore.
For his "Cinderella," Rossini put the magic into the music rather than the plot. There is no fairy godmother, no pumpkin, no glass slipper in this tale of child abuse, sibling rivalry and absurd social pretensions, but there is an abundance of wit, a never-failing stream of brilliant music and a love story that has for centuries set the standard for this genre. In this production, the Baltimore Opera does use a glass slipper rather than the bracelet specified in the libretto -- a harmless change that would undoubtedly be approved by audiences if they were given a vote.
Almost everyone in the cast has a big moment or two in the spotlight, but this production is essentially an ensemble performance -- an approach that works well throughout and is often essential. None of the voices is quite awe inspiring but all are good and they work smoothly and precisely together. This is a tribute in large measure to the conducting expertise of John DeMain, who preserves the lilt and vigor of the score throughout. He is ably seconded by the fine stage direction of Francesca Zambello, who brings out both the tenderness and the comedy of the story, though her work has not quite the polish that Gian Carlo Menotti brought to the Washington Opera production.
In the title role, White has a light, agile voice, with brilliant tone and considerable grace in its upper register. She looks like a Cinderella too, though her costume for the opening scene could have been more patched and threadbare.
Tenor Chris Merritt sings with clear diction, a good sense of style and a flair for Rossini's vocal acrobatics, but his voice was not always precisely on pitch and his stage presence is not that of a perfect Prince Charming.
The comic element was splendidly upheld by Peter Strummer, Martha Jane Howe, and Melanie Helton, whose acting was even better than her fine singing and who was particularly impressive when she managed to munch a banana while singing a recitative.