PSU Opera’s ‘Cinderella’: sweet and silly in the salon

University’s production of Pauline Viardot’s operetta is a fairy tale within a play, set to music

by ANGELA ALLEN

Cinderella is no stranger to the stage. Portland State University’s Cinderella is far from Gioachino Rossini’s 1817 Cenerentola or Jules Massenet’s 1899 version. Neither is it a by-the-book replica of the childhood fairy tale where a pretty downtrodden girl seeks her step-family’s love and that of a prince – and lucks out because the shoe fits!

Instead, Pauline Viardot’s 1904 Cinderella, an operetta not an opera, is a bit of a spoof on that fairy tale, a story within a story. PSU Opera’s production, which runs through Dec. 10 at Lincoln Studio Theater in PSU’s Lincoln Hall, is set in the flamboyant Viardot’s illustrious Parisian cultural salon.

Maeve Stier and Luke Smith sing a heartfelt duet in PSU’s production of Pauline Viardot’s operetta, “Cinderella.”

Viardot, by the way, was a real person, though relatively unknown for her musical work. She entertained such cultural heavyweights as Frederic Chopin, Clara Schumann and Henry James, and was the muse and likely lover of Ivan Turgenev.

Pauline Viardot

Sung in English, with translation by Rachel Harris, Viardot’s chamber operatta is intentionally light, frothy and funny. It has enough roles for this new crop of PSU singers to keep us amused through the 90-minute one-act performance, preceded by a salon-like “greeting” where the cast ushers the audience to their seats in the intimate, 84-seat Lincoln Studio Theater and chats up some of them. Viardot wrote the operetta to be performed by her students at her music salon, and PSU’s crew added a further warm-up of “opera charades,” musical chairs, a dance and songs by Viardot and other women composers of the time like Clara Schumann and Nadia Boulanger, as they might have at the salon.

Then “Madame Viardot” hands out parts to her students to perform her Cinderella. Viardot gives herself the Fairy Godmother role, and Megan Uhrinak, a graduate student, sings the part convincingly. Her solid acting and singing help to hold the show together.

Because of the company’s unsung singers — Cendrillon/Cinderella is sung sweetly by 18-year-old soprano Maeve Stier – and somewhat due to the bare-bones stage, the operetta was not the knock-out that recent PSU Opera productions have been. Consider last spring’s Giacomo Puccini double-bill (Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi) with star singers Saori Erickson and Hope McCaffrey and an exquisite double-duty set by designer Carey Wong.

But such is the nature of student opera. The cast changes and no doubt, in the spring production, the singers will have matured.

Several high points deserve mention. Cendrillon’s (Stier’s) duet with the prince, sung by tenor Luke Smith was lyrically performed. Baritone Jonathan Roberts played Baron Pictodu with a comic flair that he kept at unflinchingly through the production (and before as he was ushering people to seats). Baritenor Jereme Wilkie’s “Barigoule” – the French word means a braised artichoke dish with cauliflower and carrots, but Wilkie played the Prince’s sideman – was charming. He lit up the stage.

Jereme Wilkie as Barigoule lights up the stage in his comic role in PSU Opera’s “Cinderella.”

Silliness is part of this seemingly sophisticated salon scene, and stage director Brenda Nuckton makes the most of the humor. Two years ago she performed comic wonders with the opera company’s Bon Appetit and Dr. Miracle, two luscious amuse bouches.

Elyse Grimaldi’s costumes (some from Portland Opera and West Linn Historical Society) , appropriately suggested the  late 19th-century. The minimal set mostly was a living room/salon with a few chairs, and sometimes Cinderella’s hearth. Miniature carriage and horses were used to mimic the balls’s accoutrements.

The musical arrangement, by PSU professor Chuck Dillard, was played by Dillard at the piano, cellist Hasan Abualhaj and violinist Jonathan Gray. Like Cinderella’s glassy footwear, the music slipped quite fittingly into the salon.

Portland State University Opera’s “Cinderella” continues at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8 and 9, and at 3 p.m. Dec.. 10 at the Studio Theater in Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave. Portland. Tickets are $15-$30 at the PSU box office in Lincoln Hall or call the PSU Box Office: 503-725-3307.

Intimate Opera

Speaking of opera in intimate spaces …

Lance Inouye, conductor of Portland Concert Opera and Lewis & Clark College’s orchestra director and conductor, is exploring small, “acoustically vibrant” spaces for two approximately 90-minute productions a year. He believes that shorter productions without all the bells and whistles of traditional opera presented in intimate venues bring home the connection between audience and performers.

He and his group of mostly freelance musicians—five singers and eight instrumentalists—put on a delicious hourlong fundraiser replete with tasty opera appetizers (the kind you listen to) Nov. 18 at Portland’s Old Church, a space Inouye has his eye on for future performances. Arias from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Guiseppe Verdi’s Ernani, Ruggero Leoncavalla’s Pagliacci, and Jules Massenet’s Cendrillon were among program highlights. Inouye modestly and expertly directed accomplished voices, including those of soprano Kimberly Giordano, baritones Todd Thomas and Michael Redding, mezzo Beth Madsen Bradford and bass-baritone Damien Geter.

The Old Church and Lewis & Clark’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel are among Inouye’s intended future venues, but he hasn’t stopped looking for others. Look for a production in the spring. See portlandconcertopera.org for more information.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  

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