Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cinderella on Steroids - La Cenerentola, in Italian

Everyone knows the story of Cinderella. She’s the virtuous, but abused, stepsister whose virtue is eventually rewarded when she meets and marries the prince. But you probably have never seen it as an opera, in Italian. You really should.

Last night, I enjoyed La Cenerentola, composed by Gioachino Rossini, at the California Conservatory Theater in San Leandro, California. The 67-seat performance space guarantees intimacy, as it has for the other fine productions I’ve seen there. I had literally front-row center seats, too, so I was not only looking up at the actors/singers, but one time one of the stepsister’s hands brushed again my knee during a scene played in front of the stage.

You may not think of yourself as an opera enthusiast, and many people are put off by the intense performance of these highly trained singers. A show like this could change your opinion. The entire performance was sung in Italian, but I found that I forgot about the words, thanks to some supertitles (which gave the gist of the action) and the emotion communicated by the singers’ physical presence and voices.

This production was presented with the sincerity the story requires but also was filled with humor. The costumes, for example, were modern, but in the first scene, the two stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, appear in their garish, tightly-stretched track suits, “getting in shape” for an expected appearance by the prince, who has to take a bride. And their clothing never gets more tasteful than that, as these two play comic buffoons through the whole show—while still maintaining the high standards of professional opera.

This production, which runs for only a single Friday through Sunday, December 13-15, 2013, is put on by Opera on Tap (OOT), a non-profit organization whose mission is to make opera a real choice for people who may have never considered going to experience one. If you can appreciate a dramatic pop singer, how about a whole cast of them? OOT brings opera to accessible neighborhood venues, at reasonable prices, to expose more people to this classical style in an informal way. Nobody in the audience was wearing jewels, and the sets were quite simple—the kind you’d see in a community playhouse. But it worked beautifully. Visit their website for more information.

Part of this effort includes two matinees on Saturday and Sunday, abridged for children, with a different cast. Next time, I’m planning on attending one of those too to see how they do it.

The music was supported—you might even say driven—by the rousing performance of the six-member chamber orchestra, directed by Michael Anthony Schuler. At stage right, facing away from the actors in their own virtual “pit,” sat a string quartet plus bass and piano. They provided a stirring platform for the voices. Occasionally, I looked over to watch Schuler directing the musicians as he followed and conveyed the stage action, and the musicians focused intensely on their music—and each other.

It’s really hard to single out one particular vocal performance because I thought they were universally excellent. I am not an expert on opera, so I had no way to evaluate the technique. I do see from the program that all of the performers studied under expert teachers to perfect their art, and some have long performance histories.

Jessica Winn, as Cenerentola, is a powerful mezzo-soprano, and managed to convey, in her jeans and headscarf, the downtrodden and miserable house servant who is then transformed into the beautiful future princess and queen. It’s a comic touch in a sad situation when as Cenerentola, she pulls out a pack of cigarettes from her jeans pocket.

Cenerentola’s stepsisters, played by Krista Wigle and Jamie McDonald, kept the tension high with their overreaction to their various disappointments and their pervasive sibling rivalry. It was hard to be sympathetic to these characters—they are meant to be “mean” -- but the singers’ performances were powerful.

The male characters were complicated by a classic switch. Prince Ramiro, played by Jonathan Smucker, spent more than half of the play disguised as his squire/valet, Dandini (Daniel Cameron) who has to act as a prince should. This device, of course, is to ferret out how the women will really treat people, and it works. It also gives the actors a chance to play two parts, essentially. As the pretend valet, Smucker almost seems like he’s watching a science experiment, from the side holding his chin and observing. When he takes back his identity again, he not only gains his suit jacket and royal red sash, but doffs the glasses he’s worn—and they go onto Dandini, who suddenly seems the servant again, while the Prince becomes royal.

Andrew J. Chung, as Don Magnifico, is a powerful singer and he fills the stage, even with he’s out there alone. His role is not as a good guy—he craves power and attention, and is, after all, the father of those two obnoxious daughters—but what a performance!

Alidoro, the tutor, has a special role as the catalyst and advisor, who links the scenes and action. Kenneth Keel serves ably in this capacity. He also appears early in the show as a homeless beggar with a huge gray beard with a black mustache. In this scene we observe Cenerentola’s compassion versus the contempt Alidoro receives from the stepsisters. This, of course, leads the prince to seek her out, and there’s our story.

The program contains a five-page cartoon, explaining the story. Amusing in itself, it also helps provide the familiarity you want to have when you attend an opera, so you can concentrate on the exquisite beauty of the performance.

With one short intermission, this evening kept my attention and enthusiasm, and the passion shown in the singing and instrumental performances at times had me in tears. I look forward to seeing future operas by this company, and you should plan to go, too. Curtain Call Performing Arts is the theatre company in residence at The California Conservatory Theater. These opera performances by OOT fit perfectly into Curtain Call's vision of bringing fine art performances to everyone.

Coming for a weekend in July, 2014 – Carmen!

California Conservatory Theater
999 E. 14th Street
San Leandro, CA  94577

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