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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.