Cinderella has a long literary history, even preceding its inclusion in Perrault’s Mother Goose stories published in the 17th century. It continues to be told, generation after generation, with minor variations here and there, but the central story remains remarkably intact; it’s hard to imagine that anyone hasn’t heard it sometime or another. What seems to lend it its particular longevity is the universal note it hits in its key theme–the put-upon child unfairly treated by a parent, finding magical escape to a better life.
Jacopo Ferretti, Rossini’s librettist for La Cenerentola (premiered in 1817), based his version on an earlier and long forgotten French opera from several years earlier (not to be confused with Massenet’s Cendrillon of 1899). The essence of the story remains, with much of the magical fantasy deleted–no fairy godmother, no pumpkins turned to coaches, and, instead of the glass slipper, a more realistic matching bracelet for the prince to identify the mysterious beauty for whom he has fallen.
But Cinderella still has a mean step-father (Don Magnifico) and two nasty, vain sisters. She is relegated to the position of disdained scullery maid while Don Magnifico fritters away her inheritance on finery for the vain sisters. Rossini and Ferretti turn it into satire, making Don Magnifico and the sisters into deliciously comic figures, while, at the same time retaining the romance and idealism suitable for a fable–the kind, forgiving Cinderella triumphs with grace and charm, not to speak of coloratura melodies to make a songbird envious.
It is casting the role of Cinderella that makes producing La Cenerentola a challenge. For many years the opera wasn’t mounted at all due to the lack of an appropriate coloratura mezzo-soprano. In recent years, however, with singers like Bartoli and Larmore emerging, the opera has returned to the repertory on a steady basis.
San Francisco Opera’s current production was based on the casting of Sonia Ganassi in the title role, teamed with the latest Hot Thing, tenor Juan Diego Florez, as her Prince. Ganassi has triumphed in the role at Covent Garden and at La Scala, so her appearance in San Francisco was greatly anticipated. Alas, in the recurring nightmare of Executive Directors, Ganassi cancelled due to illness. In the performance reviewed, the role was sung by Mika Shigematsu, who made a valiant effort, but is simply not up to the demands of the role, vocal or histrionic. She could not be heard at all in the many superb Rossini ensembles. All the notes were there in her delivery of the great final aria, "Non piu mesta" ("Sad no longer among the cinders.."), albeit at a somewhat slowed tempo, but there was little joy projected in the singing.
Florez, as his hyper-active publicists have amply trumpeted, is young and handsome and he can hit the high notes on pitch, too. But rarely have such gifts been so totally squandered as in this performance which the tenor walked through stiffly, using a few stock poses when he bothered to move at all. His face was as uninvolved as the rest of him, unsmiling, immobile. He performed as if he were in a bubble, isolated from and unrelated to the other singers on the stage, including Cenerentola herself. So much for romance.
The genuinely fine performance of the evening was that of baritone Daniel Belcher as Dandini, the prince’s valet who masquerades as the prince. Belcher’s instrument is rich and full, and he has a genuine talent for the comical. He inhabits this role and delivers it with a natural charm that was all the more appealing in the midst of this otherwise pedestrian group of performances.
The production by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle is better than thirty years old and looks tired. Time to lay this one to rest.
Rossini, perhaps more than any other, offers melodic champagne to delight the aural palette. It felt like flat beer last night.