While the temperature in downtown Portland was inching toward 100 degrees on Sunday afternoon something cool was happening in the Newmark Theatre, and it wasn’t just the air-conditioning. Portland Opera was kicking into the second performance of its current run of Gioachino Rossini’s splendid little comedy La Cenerentola (it has four remaining performances, July 19, 21, 25, and 28), and it felt just a little like good old-fashioned populist show biz: music-hall stuff, bright and gaudy and smoothly polished and pleasingly antique, like a visit to the Moulin Rouge or D’Oyly Carte. The band was brassy and cheeky and the acting was brisk and impeccably choreographed, an effect accidentally underscored by the coincidental scheduling of auditions for those high-kicking goddesses of the basketball court the Blazer Dancers in the Winningstad Theatre downstairs. The Blazer aspirants had their own contingent of enthusiastic followers, and the blend of opera lovers and sporting fans led to an interesting mixture of audiences and sometimes skimpy costuming in the lobby beforehand.
La Cenerentola is a retelling of the Cinderella story, without the fairy godmother or the magic mice and pumpkin but with some terrific melodies, and after the lengthy overture (William Tell wasn’t the only overture Rossini wrote) the opera opens with the two spoiled stepsisters popping about the stage like bright-cheeked marionettes, or maybe floppy rag dolls in their skivvies, while Cenerentola, poor cinder maid, slumps morosely in the corner, singing a sad song that only irritates her petulant sisters as they primp and fuss.
Fatuous step-pappa Don Magnifico (there is no stepmother in this version) is snoozing out of sight in the background, and pretty soon a beggar shows at the doorstep: He is roundly reviled by the stepsisters but treated kindly by Cenerentola (or Angelina, as she comes to be known for her sweet spiritual goodness), who feeds him while the sisters aren’t looking. Let that suffice for setup. There is a prince, there is a ball, there are disguises, there is a search (not for a glass slipper, but a matching bracelet), and love, of course, triumphs. Love, and a friskily told, slyly comic story.
Seeing La Cenerentola in the 870-seat, Edwardian style Newmark rather than the endless muffling stretches of the 3,000-seat Keller Auditorium is a pleasure. Everything’s to scale, from the modest-sized orchestra conducted with adept wit by Carolyn Kuan to the sightlines and intimacy. It’s a mostly young cast: Kate Farrar (Cenerentola) and Helen Zhibing Huang (stepsister Clorinda) are part of this year’s crop of Portland Opera resident artists in the early stages of of their careers, and Ryan Thorne (a prince of a valet as the role-playing Dandini) is a recent resident artist. The closeness of the surroundings allows Sue Bonde’s sparkling costumes and Connie Yun’s lighting (she knows how to use simultaneous spotlights to superb comic effect, and then merge them into a single glow) to play breezily with Daniel Meeker’s simple framing of a set that suggests rich draperies and patterned velvet wallpaper.
Stage director Christopher Mattaliano, who is also Portland Opera’s general director, has done a brilliant job of bringing out the comic theatrical elements in Rossini’s music and Jacopo Ferretti’s libretto, slyly sliding from period to suggestion of period without breaking the overall style. (La Cenerentola, which made its debut in 1817, is technically a dramma giacoso, which simply means an operatic play with jokes.) There are hints of Restoration comedy, and Italian farce, and precision Broadway musical theater, and even Gilbert and Sullivan, in the form of a nine-man chorus of prancing servants and gentleman courtiers who, if you blink your eye, might be comical pirates or policemen. Ferretti and the young Rossini, who was 25 when he composed the music for La Cenerentola, had a bickering relationship that was soon broken off, but in this opera Ferretti served Rossini, and their audiences, well.
Rossini knew how to write for specific kinds of voices, and used them smartly for dramatic effect. Good musical theater matches voice to character, and you can tell from the get-go that Rossini knew the game: As soprano Huang as Clorinda and mezzo Laura Beckel Thoreson as Tisbe chatter cartoonishly away, mezzo Farrar breaks in as Cenerentola with a deeper, rounder, more authoritative tone, and you know instinctively that she’s to be taken seriously: What she says and sings is going to be at the core of things. If Ferretti’s characters are types, they are extremely well-turned types: Rossini composed to them, and Mattaliano has cast and directed to them. The acting is splendid across the board, highlighted by the veteran bass-baritone Eduardo Chama’s brilliantly buffoonish turn as the alternately argumentative and sycophantic would-be strongman Don Magnifico, whose rumored fabulous wealth may be on shaky grounds (no, the opera’s action does not take place in Helsinki) and Thorn’s flourishing Dandini, the servant who revels perhaps a little too much in his character-switch with his boss, the lovelorn prince (Australian tenor Alasdair Kent, whose boyish looks and light lyric tone rise enchantingly to the occasion). Metropolitan Opera veteran Daniel Mobbs rounds out the cast in fine form as the genial, knowing Alidoro, the philosopher-tutor who is the closest thing this version of the tale has to a fairy godmother. The voices blend pleasingly and well; if there’s a drawback to the production it’s in the varying success with the bel canto-like embellishments in the music, which are difficult to master and in a brilliant production can slip and slide seductively with crystal clarity.
Rossini and Ferretti’s version of the Cinderella story is, like all tellings of the tale, at least a little bit of a revenge fantasy: the poor stepchild is abused and undervalued by her family, but a good prince recognizes her true beauty and worth, and she is raised high above her tormentors, who must then dine humiliatingly on crow. Given our current economic and political situation in extremis, with its general gluttony and abandonment by the élite of any sort of responsibility toward the commons, I found myself rather aching for a dash of dramatic comeuppance; maybe even a little jail time. But Cenerentola is a better person than I am, and rather than cravenly desiring to see the rich and powerful eaten she forgives them, and accepts them, and shows them by example how to be a true and honest rich person, actually supporting and caring for those citizens of lower station whose only sin is not having had the foresight to be born with silver spoons in their mouths. Now, there’s a fairy tale for modern times.
Next up in the summer portion of Portland Opera’s season is Christoph Gluck’s musically appealing version of Orfeo ed Euridice, a small-scale show that will feature Sandra Piques Eddy as the poet Orfeo, the rising former resident artist Lindsay Ohse as Euridice, and current resident artist Helen Huang as Amore, god of love. It’ll be in the Newmark Theatre, with performances July 27, 29 and 31, and August 2 and 4.
Portland Opera’s La Cenerentola continues July 19, 21, 25, and 28 in the Newmark Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Ticket and schedule information here.