Rossini’s “Cinderella” has all the ingredients of a delightful operatic comedy: sparkling music, comic characters, a simple plot studded with jokes and tied up with the bow of a happy ending. The secret to any recipe, though, is proportion, and here “Cinderella” (a.k.a. “Cenerentola” in the Italian original) represents a challenge; it’s a bagatelle drawn out to grand-opera length. Its first act, in particular, is so long that audience members may develop Stockholm syndrome, growing fond of the thing that holds them hostage.
Today’s stage directors tend to compensate by piling on color, absurdity and the kinds of rudimentary sight gags and mugging that a lot of people, opera presenters and opera-goers alike, seem to find de rigueur in stagings of 19th-century opera. I’ve seen a number of bright and wacky “Cinderellas” over the years; indeed, Joan Font’s production — which arrived at the Washington National Opera on Saturday night (with Tanya Kane-Parry as associate director) but has been making the rounds for at least seven years — inspired in me a sense of deja vu. It’s aggressively colorful, with costumes and sets (by Joan Guillén) in brilliant candy shades of red and yellow and chartreuse, putting a lollipop complexion on a work of lollipop sweetness.
It’s also aggressively cute, starting, and continuing, and going on and on and on, with its signature conceit: a pack of actors costumed as mice, serving as pets, footmen, stagehands, dancers and general visual distraction, onstage for the entire show. If you or your children like mice, this is the “Cinderella” for you.
On Saturday, the singing was of a piece with the work, in that the ingredients were sometimes better than the whole. One reason “Cinderella” is popular with opera companies is that it has a relatively small cast; when the wicked stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, get to the Prince’s ball, a part of me always wonders where all the other women are (the work has only a men’s chorus). The WNO has cast those sisters with two stars of its Domingo-Cafritz young-artist program, Jacqueline Echols and Deborah Nansteel, respectively, and they shone brightly. Echols, in particular, outsang everyone else on stage in some of the ensembles. Add to this Paolo Bordogna, who in the perennially overacted role of Don Magnifico, their pompous father (who replaces the wicked stepmother in Rossini’s version of the tale), sang with notable power and flair, and you had a bottom-heavy cast.
Not that all the singers in the main roles were bad, just paler. Particularly pleasing was the Prince, or Don Ramiro, of Maxim Mironov, a tall tenor with a gentle whitish sound in a most respectable company debut. He doesn’t have the vocal brilliance or incisiveness of some other current stars in this repertory, but he sang well and appealingly all the way through.
For most of the opera, Don Ramiro pretends to be his valet, while his valet, Dandini, masquerades as the Prince. Simone Alberghini’s Dandini looked good onstage, danced adroitly and sang in ragged approximations of the notes that made me wonder how he had gotten through the rehearsal period without someone fixing what he was doing; his voice is deep and strong but without any vestige of the agility needed in this repertory. The bass-baritone Shenyang was a pleasant, low-key Alidoro, a kind of Merlin figure who tutors the Prince and wanders the countryside disguised as a beggar, evidently so that he can catch Cinderella in a random act of kindness when she feeds him on the sly and arrange to reward her by hooking her up with Mr. Right.
Billed as the star of the evening was Isabel Leonard, the young mezzo-soprano who has sung extensively at the Met and brought her capable pretty voice to a Vocal Arts D.C. recital some years before this WNO debut. Leonard’s flaw is her blandness. She sang industriously, and appropriately, and sometimes even touchingly, particularly in the final scene, where Cinderella warmly forgives her thoroughly nasty and abusive family in a much more immediate demonstration of Stockholm syndrome. But Leonard didn’t have much of a low range, nor much range as an actor; her Cinderella never fully came to life.
In the pit, Speranza Scappucci also hid her own light a bit. She conducts with a fluidity of gesture that led to a lack of crispness, a slight sense of plodding in the overture; but she also conducts clearly and strongly, keeping some challenging ensembles together and culminating in one of the cleanest, most precise ensembles I’ve heard in the final sextet of the opera.
There are plenty of chances to hear “Cinderella” over the next two weeks; the show runs through May 21, including a live simulcast at Nationals Park on Saturday for the company’s annual “Opera in the Outfield” event. On Monday, Friday and Sunday, David Portillo and Tara Erraught will sing the Prince and Cinderella. Erraught is the rising mezzo who acquitted herself so well, and whose reviews (criticizing her appearance) stirred up such controversy after Glyndebourne’s “Rosenkavalier” last summer, and I’ll welcome a chance to hear her in the flesh.