Simply stated, there are those operatic singers who consider themselves Rossini singers, and there are those who don't. The diction and voice flexibility required for Gioachino Rossini's characteristic style of rapid-fire runs of little notes is both an art and a craft—one that some singers luxuriate in naturally. Knoxville Opera, under executive director and conductor Brian Salesky, ended up with just such a solid cast of wonderful Rossini singers for its production last weekend of La Cenerentola ("Cinderella"), a production that bubbled and sparkled with typically melodic Rossini verve and a lot of lovable comedic energy.
Mezzo-soprano Leah Wool seemed at home with Rossini, and with the character of Angelina/Cinderella, which she sang with Nashville Opera in January, albeit in Italian. Wool, last seen by Knoxville audiences in 2010's production of The Barber of Seville, is one of those who consider themselves a Rossini singer. Her voice effortlessly flits and flies over the runs with impeccable diction wrapped in a gloriously velvety warmth. Equally important, though, is that she is a wonderful actress whose innate dramatic ability can carry her from stony seriousness to broad comedy sight gags. Her deadpan delivery of "Once upon a time there was a king" as she accepts the shoddy treatment from her family was truly funny. And, in storybook fashion, she made forgiveness quite believable, as well as the finale's theme, "goodness triumphs."
New to Knoxville Opera, but not to the role of Prince Ramiro, was tenor Michael Dailey, both dashing and charming in the role of Cinderella's prince. Dailey's voice throughout his range was smooth, clear, and agile, and his physical carriage both regal and youthfully flexible.
If you don't remember the Prince having a servant sidekick named Dandini from the classic versions of the Cinderella story, that's because Rossini and his librettist added the character as the centerpiece of the opera's comedy. Taking the role was Andrew Garland, last seen here as Figaro in the 2010 The Barber of Seville. While Garland's rich baritone was remarkably detailed and refined, it was his sensational comedic delivery and timing that made him the center of attention.
Bass Kevin Glavin was marvelous as Cinderella's greedy and buffoonish stepfather, Don Magnifico. We'll probably be hearing a lot in the future from bass Matthew Anchel, who sang a wonderfully poignant Alidoro, Rossini's wise and beneficent version of the tale's fairy godmother character.
Rounding out the comic lineup were the roles of the shallow and hateful stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, sung respectively by Donata Cucinotta and Dixie Roberts. Both were extremely comfortable with the physical and vocal comedy required of them, yet they each found ways to humorously individualize their characters. Cucinotta's aria as Clorinda was almost a show-stopper in Act II as she bemoaned her rejection while on ballet point, ending with a comedic slow split.
Much of the production's energy flowed from director James Marvel, who fashioned a snappy, light presentational style for the singers, allowing a few anachronistic liberties for the sake of well-placed contemporary visual humor. One such bit even seemed strangely akin to "Gangnam Style" dance moves. The attractive but simple set, acquired from Utah Festival Opera and consisting of doors, alcoves, and balconies, was well used in Marvel's scheme, constricting the action but giving ample space for playfulness from the performers. Even the mechanical serpentine entrances for the Prince's guards, sung by the excellent Knoxville Opera men's chorus under Don Townsend, was used to great effect.
The fun, comedic energy and presentational look was also aided by the lighting of John Horner, who used follow spots to concentrate the focus on the leads, footlights and saturated colors that fit the style, and some beautiful tableaux for the singer's arias.
This production, though sung in a decent English translation, raised the issue of English versus the original language in opera, and highlighted the pros and cons. English text makes the experience more comfortable for opera newcomers, particularly children, and breaks down some theatrical barriers for everyone. However, in the case of Cinderella, it was obvious that the English lyrics, even well-translated ones, had to be shoe-horned and adjusted to fit Rossini's intricately addictive musical language.