Sixty years into the Rossini revival and where do we stand? Scholars have struggled for decades to make sense of the ornamentation and the piecemeal assembly of the composer's scores. Valiant performers have championed his music, and opera companies have repeatedly taken risks on works that are still strange and unwieldy to each new generation: hybrid works, like "semi-serious" comedies and extended exercises in "opera seria," a holdover form dating from well back into the 18th century. But pushing the front lines past "The Barber of Seville" has been long, hard work, with only minimal success if one judges by the treatment of Rossini in regional and smaller companies.
"La Cenerentola," Rossini's opera bouffe based on the Cinderella fairy tale, is one of the few success stories, a frothy little work that has finally succeeded in clawing its way into the standard repertory. The Baltimore Opera has devoted its Christmas season to a six-performance run of Rossini's "other" great comedy, the last work the exceedingly prolific composer would produce in his overly fermented, relatively unsentimental Italian comic style of "Barber."
"Cenerentola" is stock stuff, a standard moral exercise intended to test the ethical fiber of the female of the species, enacted by the usual stock mix of characters: The buffoon father, the noble prince, the shrewish sisters and the cruelly besmirched Cinderella. It never strays from the simple, almost mechanical conventions of opera bouffe; one could easily fall asleep in "Barber of Seville" and wake up in "Cenerentola" without feeling that the world had been wrenched from its normal rotation.
The virtues of "Cenerentola" are almost entirely in the score, which, even though significant chunks of it are not actually by Rossini, still contains some of his liveliest and most theatrically effective vocal writing. The comedy is by no means secondary, but it is a jumping off point, a prerequisite that the music fulfills with its own kind of comedy.
The Baltimore Opera plays it straight, setting the sex romp in generic music theater style, with appealing but contentedly two-dimensional sets, period costumes and an odd chandelier or two to distinguish the extravagance of the royal realm from the shabbiness of Cinderella's gray milieu. The direction, by John Lehmeyer, is delightfully unobtrusive, with no unnecessary underscoring of comic moments or hysterical exclamation points. It lets a stock story evolve in stock ways, which is the wisest course when the humor is as crystalline and frail as spun sugar.
Baltimore has engaged the musical services of Will Crutchfield, in a former life a distinguished music critic for the New York Times, now a conductor and Rossini expert who has specialized in helping singers gain a historical and practical understanding of the bel canto tradition, especially its all-important ornamentation. Crutchfield is apparently using these performers as an opportunity to explore different approaches to ornamentation; he has announced that different approaches will be used on different nights. That could lead to something studious, methodical and untheatrical. In the event, however, the results are anything but experimental, and whatever work Crutchfield has done with the vocalists has been happily finished and buffed in the rehearsal hall.
Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, who has the most taxing role of the evening, sings with confidence and, while one can tell that her technique is being exercised to its limits, the voice is produced easily and effortlessly. The texture is dark, the tone quality has just enough edginess to cut like a bread knife. She is a modest Cinderella in the first act; a regal queen in the final one. The transformation, which is made difficult by the composer's odd elongation of the final act, is convincingly done.
She is supported by a strong and sympathetic cast. Tenor Bruce Fowler, as her suitor Don Ramiro, produces a familiar (and to these ears unpleasant) high Rossini sound; but that's the danger of this very high-set repertoire, which demands but top notes and dexterity. Few Rossini tenors, even ones universally admired, make beautiful noises, and Fowler is not exceptional. He is, however, musically sensitive and a fine romantic lead opposite Genaux.
The two bouffe characters, the valet Dandini and the pompous papa, Don Magnifico, were taken by singers both physically and vocally well suited to the roles. Baritone Daniel Mobbs and bass Kevin Glavin, respectively, were the duper and the duped in this drama of mistaken identity and mistaken self-importance. Their duet, "Un segreto d'importanza," one of the high points in all of Rossini, was masterfully done, a long-winded build-up to a secret we all know full well.
The two sisters, sung by soprano Carla DelVillaggio and mezzo-soprano Nicole Biondo, were, appropriately, glamorous nothings, annoying and importunate. DelVillaggio and Biondo played the ungrateful roles with true professionalism.
Crutchfield's contributions were not limited to the vocalists. The orchestra rendered the fluttering thoughts of the overture with good, clean playing, pleasant tone from strings and woodwinds, and a secure sense of its many full stops and volte-faces.