Instead of a fairy godmother, we have a wise old tutor and the glass slippers are now a pair of diamond bracelets. Aside from that, everything is as usual — only funnier — in Rossini’s operatic version of the timeless tale of Cinderella. Oh, yes, the wicked stepmother has been replaced by a drunken and avaricious stepfather. No less mean, however.
“La Cenerentola” has been pleasing audiences ever since it first bowed in 1817 and, at one point, surpassed the composer’s now better-known “Barber of Seville” in popularity. The production at the San Francisco Opera is not notable for Jean-Pierre Ponelle’s children’s book-illustration sets (“iconic“ in the words of the press release) that are frankly looking a little tired, but for the stunning debut of French mezzo Karine Deshayes in the title role.
Deshayes, who is as beautiful as her flexible voice, has sung this role in several houses in her native France, and she infuses her Cinderella with a spunk and defiance that is a welcome contrast to the shrinking, hand-wringing, bird-feeding stereotype. And she sings the heck out of it, handling the tricky bel canto passages with ease. While the middle of the opera is largely given to the antics of the step-relations and the Prince’s valet at the ball, the end, where the abused and disinherited kitchen-maid comes to the throne, scattering forgiveness in her wake, belongs to the newly wed princess. Deshayes owns it.
Her Prince is the Merola alumnus René Barbera, who has sung numerous roles at Lyric Opera of Chicago and will return to San Francisco this summer in “Les Troyens.” Barbera has a sweet lyric tenor with surprising power when it is called for. He shows some strain in his highest register but, by and large, discharged his duties in a royal manner.
The funny business in this version gets as much attention as the romance, and the comics are quite wonderful: Maria Valdes and Zanda Švēde as the vain, klutzy stepsisters, and, especially, Carlos Chausson as Don Magnifico, their father. The Spanish bass-baritone has sung all over the world and does many roles in Zurich. He’s got a great voice and acting chops to boot, as he schemes to get one of his girls to be the Prince’s bride (he could care less which one — as long as it isn’t Cenerentola). Also in for the laughs is Efraín Solís as the Prince’s valet, who spends most of the opera impersonating his master. His reward is to be sent back to the servant’s quarters in the end.
Christian Van Horn is in his usual fine form as Alidoro, the tutor/fairy godfather who more or less arranges the marriage between Cenerentola and the Prince. The scene where he foretells her future, his shadow looming large on the wall as she stares up at it in wonder (lighting by Gary Marder) is spellbinding. The San Francisco Opera chorus of men (directed by Ian Robertson), playing courtiers and friends to the Prince, is superb, as is renowned conductor Jesús López-Cobos in the pit, leading a small orchestra of 47, as it would have been in Rossini’s time, in the spirited score.
The greatest strength of that score is the ensembles that punctuate each act. Whether it is all seven principals expressing amazement at what is transpiring or just a few against the chorus, the combined voices and the buoyant music carry you off into another world. One where we all live happily ever after.