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16 October, 1997

Cenerentola with Cecelia Bartoli

Review the Metropolitan Opera premiere of La Cenerentola (Cinderella) by Rossini. Thursday 16th October, 1997.

The Met has pulled out all the stops for this one. And it is the first time they have done the opera. The New York Times had a two page article describing the Bartoli phenomenon and warning of regular cancellations, limited repertoire and limited size of the voice.

A fabulous cast was mustered and a new production/design team who had not worked at the Metropolitan previously. And the night did not disappoint.

The show had been marketed heavily as the only night of the season which was more expensive, being billed as a 'Gala benefit'. Even Pavarotti in Turandot is regular price ($US24 - $125). Every ticket had its face value plus a 'contribution'. For enthusiasts with the really big money, $700 allowed one to sit in the best 'orchestra' seats and to attend a fully catered sit-down supper with the cast in the circle foyer facing Broadway. I was told that the flower arrangements on each table cost over $200. They certainly looked spectacular, the tables all set with cutlery, crockery and glassware and hundreds of matching reproduction gilded Chippendale chinoiserie chairs looked very at home in this temple of 1960s taste.

That the interval audience was compressed into half the usual space mattered not to the management. You pay for the opera, not the intervals!

The orchestra is always well received here and with James Levine at the helm there is a veritable fan club in evidence. He took the overture (a typical rollicking Rossini jewel) andante until the accelerando came at such a pace it was hard to imagine how everyone would keep up. But they did and it was quite extraordinary at such a cracking pace. The synfonia contains tricks of the instruments, tempi and melodies galore, yielding a round of delight from the audience.

The production's design was based on a vertical thick stripe decor coloured bright blue. The curtains, backdrop, walls and hangings were in a similar vein. A pervading decay was most evident in a smashed mirror, peeling wall-paper, cracked walls and especially effective in a leaking ceiling during the second act storm scene. Bartoli as Cinderella, the disgraced daughter cum servant, ran from place to place with buckets and bowls, finally handing the master an umbrella which was then struck by lightning. Clever stage effects had flames shoot up from several other parts of the interiors simultaneously. The smoking remnants of the umbrella offered little protection to a deflated and soggy Don Magnifico.

Two features of the old Cinderella story are not to be found in the opera libretto. But this is New York and anything and everything goes. In front of the curtain was a line of party shoes, à la Mrs Marcos. These were skillfully scattered by Cenerentola on the Prince's arrival. [It is actually a bracelet which the prince matches to identify his sweetheat in the opera.] The end of the first act party scene saw numerous huge gilded clockfaces showing midnight through doorways - and these were featured on the (free) programmes for the entire Fall season. There were no pumpkins but this was pantomime fantasy at its best.

We were given the first hint of clever stagecraft when Don Magnifico describes his dream of a winged donkey landing on a church steeple. The set duly parts at one of the settlement cracks revealing a cartoon donkey settling onto a picture book bell tower.

It would take pages to tell of all the theatrical tricks at play here: a noose net for the family caught in Alidoro's web; a 2 metre high wedding cake; a collapsing couch, doors to nowhere; flying 'tardis' box to spirit Cinderella away; chorus appearing from floor-boards, chimney and false doors; very-bad-taste sisters' costumes to win prizes.

So how was the singing? Well, quite extraordinary, really. Though not being possessed of a huge voice, Cecilia Bartoli was able to husband her resources efficiently, focus her characterisation and project in a way which was remarkable. There was not a hint of bellow or strain and she connected with the whole audience of almost 4000.

Her colleagues - friends and foes - all sang with equal style and musicality. Alidoro, the master of ceremonies was played by Michele Pertusi, Don Magnifico by Simone Alaimo, Dandini by Alessandro Corbelli, Prince Ramira by Ramón Vargas. Vargas, with a facile if slightly dry tenor, was incomparable in the most florid passages and it is indeed remarkable that he can sing such diverse rôles as he does.

Despite the appearance of Lucia and Barber of Seville, it is claimed that James Levine has steered the Met away from the bel canto repertoire. The Bartoli factor steered him back. And here is complex, light but intense bel canto at its best, as Sydney audiences know.
This was a night to remember, and possibly even to write home about!

from: Andrew Byrne, presently visiting New York.

22 June, 1997

Madama Butterfly

Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House

Thurs 19th June 1997

PinkertonJay Hunter Morris
SharplessDavid McNicoll
Cio-cio-sanCheryl Barker
SuzukiIngrid Silveus
Cond.Patrick Summers

I personally disliked almost everything about this opera performance. The previous AO production was absolutely traditional, closely following the very detailed instructions given by Puccini and his librettist. It was highly regarded and had a very long run at the various Australian opera houses in which it played for over a decade. While fresh from a distance one could understand that parts of it were tattered and threadbare close-up.

So the new production had to be different. It had to suit the music and yet not distract.

It was certainly different. It contained almost nothing Japanese. There were no natural traditional Asian materials, fabrics, flowers, vistas or colours. No cane, bamboo or paper ornaments. Japanese do not insult easily, but the clumsy attempts at western impressions of the sunrise empire might have offended purists, just as the opera itself again puts America into a sorry light. Recycled staging ideas were aplenty.

Beginning from the top: the conductor commencing proceedings un-announced (cf. Otello), pond surrounding stage (cf. Tristan), paddling servants (Midsummer night's dream), draw-bridges (cf. Hoffmann), dressed, on-stage stage hands (cf. Bohème), silk ribbon dance (cf. Turandot), stars above set (cf. Tosca, and why did they move?), Tussaud-like framed figures (cf. Aida and others), vertical sliding screens (cf Ruddigore, Miss Saigon). Butterfly's entrance was no procession, except vocally. The death scene was also a major let down for me. The dagger did not seem to make its mark and Pinkerton, though heard, was not evidenced by anything but a nylon curtain blowing in the breeze (cf. Otello act III). Even Butterfly's flag was the post-war rising sun ensign.

The draining of the canals after the 'petal' diaspora misfired badly. Although there was nothing visible, much of the audience was reminded of the pissoir from the sound of the on-stage plumbing.

But what was new? The voices, or absence thereof in the case of the men. The visiting tenor had a big write up in the press. Like an alarm clock, his top was intact and exciting. What they did not tell us was that there was a weak mid-voice. Sharpless was also new to me - he sang quietly so as not to attract attention. I made a point of sitting in the front circle.

Only the ladies could really be heard from my position. Cheryl Barker's Butterfly was vocally superb. She took all the hard options, holding notes, avoiding breathes and injecting feeling and pathos into her hopeless state in this relentless plot.

Ingrid Silveus was equally moving as the ever-trusting handmaiden, Suzuki.

Patrick Summers, much as we appreciate his returns to Australia, was over indulgent with the tempo. One by one on opening night, the principal singers struggled, and failed to keep up with his unrealistic pace. This is so unnecessary in an opera where accuracy and poise matter. Individual orchestra members are often exposed in intimate moments and they played well and with due deference to this important music.

The audience response was rapturous and I was not in the majority in my flat feeling at the end. So much the reviewer's lot!

This production will improve with time. For my money it would be hard to do anything which would be to its detriment. It is a great advertisement for the concert performance when you run out of original and pertinent ideas to support the opera libretto.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..