La Cenerentola, Chicago Lyric Opera, October 2005
Photo of Flórez as Don Ramiro by Dan Rest

Lyric's duo a dream, Chicago Tribune, 7 October 2005
Lyric's 'Cenerentola' belle of the ball, Chicago Sun-Times, 7 October 2005

Lyric's duo a dream
John von Rhein, Chicago Tribune, 7 October 2005

Kasarova and Flórez emerge as dynamic team in 'Cenerentola' revival

Rossini's "La Cenerentola" takes an awfully long time to get to the good stuff, the vocal somersaults and high-wire acrobatics that send lovers of bel-canto singing into feeding frenzies. Before the tenor and mezzo are able to sing their brilliant and fiendishly difficult showpieces, you have to wade through a protracted parade of comic shtick involving a greedy stepfather, silly stepsisters and various characters in disguise.

Just when you begin wondering whether it was worth the wait, Vesselina Kasarova and Juan Diego Flórez, as the opera's cute-as-buttons romantic leads, step to the footlights to loft Rossini's ornate vocal lines to the glittering heavens, and you're glad to be spending more than three hours with this Cinderella story.

Lyric Opera's revival of "Cenerentola," which opened Wednesday at the Civic Opera House, marked the third time around here for Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production, which is now 36 years old but hardly looks it. As restaged by Grischa Asagaroff, the durable show still hath charms, earning its laughs in all the right places without having to milk the sight gags.

Even by the high standards of present-day Rossini singing, Flórez in his long-awaited company debut as Don Ramiro, and Kasarova as the scullery-maid-turned-princess Angelina, made a dream duo at Wednesday's opening.

Flórez is a Prince Charming to the manner born. This is a lyric tenor voice that's ideal for Rossini, diamond-bright in tone yet sweet where required, firm in definition and even throughout its range. His high notes have thrilling ping to them, his diction is immaculate, and he sails through the most demanding coloratura like a downhill skier taking every curve in elegant stride. He achieves every expressive nuance without sacrificing stylishness or security of line.

The young Peruvian tenor also is a remarkably assured stage performer who cuts a noble figure even in valet attire.

What Kasarova shares with Flórez is a natural charisma that keeps one riveted whenever she's singing. The exotic Bulgarian mezzo wielded a voice of molten gold, with a rock-solid technique that allows her to glide up from a rich chest voice to a gleaming upper extension. Her Cinderella may be more knowing than demure from the outset, but this is a minor quibble in the face of such a compelling vocal characterization.

Originally scheduled to sing the valet Dandini, the veteran bass Alessandro Corbelli was a model of idiomatic buffo style as Don Magnifico, knowing just where and how to apply the comic tricks of the trade. Nobody plays apoplectic befuddlement better.

Levi Hernandez, deputized from the Lyric Opera Center to replace Corbelli as Dandini, the servant as prince, preened and pranced behind his Wayne Newton mustache like the gifted young comedian he is, with accomplished singing to match.

As Alidoro, the royal tutor who stands in for the fairy godmother of the original fable, bass Mark S. Doss brought proper weight and grandeur to his scenes.

This production makes the ugly stepsisters as ridiculous as possible, and both soprano Lauren Curnow (Clorinda) and contralto Meredith Arwady (Tisbe) threw themselves into their routines with relish; one tottered in arabesque like a demented ballerina while the other indulged in a garish toilette. Director Donald Palumbo's splendid male chorus gleefully entered into the antic spirit of things.

The revival was fortunate to have so stylish and seasoned a bel-canto maestro as Bruno Campanella presiding in the pit. Few conductors have so clear an understanding of how to shape an ensemble, point a phrase or breathe with their singers. He caught the lyricism and sparkle of the score unerringly, save for a few untidy moments that no doubt will be fixed by later performances.

Ponnelle's bleached-gray sets looked rather like Edward Gorey pen-and-ink illustrations, disclosing separate rooms on either side of the stage for the nasty stepsisters, a central area with fireplace for Angelina's servant duties and a simple backdrop with doors for the various comings and goings at the prince's palace. The bright red jackets of the prince's retainers and the stepsisters' outlandish outfits stood out in sharp relief against the washed-out flats.

Lyric's 'Cenerentola' belle of the ball
Wynne Delacoma, Chicago Sun-Times, 7 October 2005

You could almost hear the sighs of contentment spreading through the Civic Opera House.

There was Bulgarian mezzo-soprano Vesselina Kasarova, a blond beauty of astonishingly smoky vocal depths and glittering heights, sweeping the hearth and looking fetching as the lowly Cinderella character in Rossini's "La Cenerentola." As Don Ramiro, her Prince Charming, Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez combined Andy Garcia good looks with a stirring, fresh voice as open and soaring as any of the Three Tenors in their prime.

With a sprightly supporting cast, Lyric Opera of Chicago's revival Wednesday of Rossini's frothy yet psychologically telling version of the Cinderella fairy tale was a night at the opera to savor.

Rossini's comic operas, the ever-popular "The Barber of Seville'' and "The Italian Girl in Algiers'' among them, are much more than the sum of their dizzying, high-speed arias and farcical situations. Writing in the early 19th century, Rossini had a keen eye for the cultural shifts that would eventually destroy the old aristocratic order. "La Cenerentola'' was a solid success at its premiere in 1817, and Lyric's production, directed and designed by the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle and first seen at Lyric in 1976, is a bracing combination of silliness, satire and surprisingly astute social commentary.

Grischa Asagaroff, director of the Zurich Opera House and a close associate of Ponnelle's, directed this revival with a deft hand. Created 30-some years ago and last seen in Lyric's 1983-84 season, this "La Cenerentola'' could be showing its age. But those durable Rossini specialties -- the gusty rainstorms, the ensembles that hurl singers into frantic, tongue-twisting outpourings, the flummoxed grandees -- were livelier than ever. At times in the hyper-fast ensembles, the singers were pressed to match the pace set by Italian conductor Bruno Campanella. But in general, Lyric's terrific cast, Ponnelle's sets with their look of a child's pop-up greeting card and Rossini's ebullient score added up to an operatic dream.

Lyric audiences have enjoyed Kasarov's portrayals of noble young men, including Romeo in Bellini's "I Capuleti e i Montecchi,'' but her Cinderella was a revelation. With its innate authority, her dark, penetrating mezzo-soprano gave the fairy tale Cinderella a profound depth of heart. This was not simply an oppressed young beauty pining for a handsome prince. Kasarova's Cenerentola was a thoughtful young woman truly troubled by the disdain that her cruel stepfather and arrogant sisters feel for the poor. When she appeared at the ball in sumptuous black velvet and diamonds, she had the regal yet gracious bearing of a princess indeed worthy of respect.

Making his eagerly anticipated Lyric debut, Florez was a prince to swoon over. His tenor is a vibrant instrument, light and agile in Rossini's highly ornamented vocal fireworks but powerful and secure in the opera's ringing high notes. His Don Ramiro was a gentle, ardent lover but capable of convincingly hot wrath when defending Cenerentola.

Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli was originally scheduled to sing Dandini, the prince's valet, but moved into the role of Don Magnifico when Alfonso Antoniozzi withdrew for personal reasons. Corbelli brought just the right level of comic bustle to Cenerentola's scheming stepfather. Facing financial ruin, eager to marry off one of his empty-headed daughters to a rich prince, fantasizing about his prerogatives as master of the prince's wine cellar, he was hilariously repulsive. Corbelli flew through Don Magnifico's patter-style arias with the flair of a young Figaro.

Levi Hernandez, in his final year as a member of the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists training program, was an equally adept Dandini. Reveling in his foppish getup, absurdly proud of the slightly undersized top hat perched on his greatly oversized cloud of hair, he was the essence of a self-satisfied royal toff.

Baritone Mark S. Doss, a graduate of Lyric's training program, brought a kindhearted gravity to the role of Alidoro, the prince's tutor who sees the true princess beneath Cenerentola's shabby exterior.

Two current members of Lyric's training program, soprano Lauren Curnow and contralto Meredith Arwady, also did the program proud. As the wicked stepsisters, they clowned and prattled deftly without slipping into cartoonish overstatement.

Bouncing to the tips of her clunky toe shoes, Curnow brought to mind the self-satisfied, heartless ballerina in Stravinsky's "Petrushka.'' Looking like a plump peppermint lozenge in her voluminous striped gown, Arwady moved with the comic timing and lightness of a Lucille Ball. Her supple, rich voice had a clarion presence capable of reaching the far corners of the vast Civic Opera House. A first-year member of Lyric's training center, she is clearly a singer to watch.

The men of Lyric's chorus decorated the comings and goings like an impeccably tailored male chorus line. What princess wouldn't want to appear at a ball surrounded by ranks of such handsome gentlemen in white tie and tails?


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