Jeannette Fischer as Clorinda, Karine Deshayes as Angelina and Anna Wall as Tisbe. Photo: Opéra national de Paris/Agathe Poupeney
I must admit to having felt some trepidation in going to see Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella) at the Opéra Garnier this week, as probably my worst viewing experience was with the same work in Paris a few years ago at roughly the same time of year (this opera seems to have the same special Christmas status in France as performances of Handel’s Messiah have in Britain and North America). The earlier production, at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, had been feeble, with mediocre singing and seating so uncomfortable that I had always unfairly associated the music with leg cramps and amazement at how undiscerning an audience can be (that production had been cheered wildly, with only one dissenting booing voice – mine). Well, I am pleased to report that the enthusiastic applause that rang out at the end of the first performance of the joyous production at the Palais Garnier was entirely merited.
The French have good reason to feel a kinship with La Cenerentola: the opera is based on the fairytale by Frenchman Charles Perrault, and Rossini lived in Paris for much of his long life. The composer and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti made a number of changes to the original story, however, removing all the supernatural elements and replacing the slipper with a rather more prosaic bracelet. The fairy godmother becomes a philosopher, Alidoro, who advises the Prince Charming of this version, Don Ramiro, as he swaps places with his valet Dandini so he can observe the three sisters.
The decision to resurrect the late, great Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s creation (he not only directed the opera but designed the set and costumes as well) is fully justified. The exquisitely detailed dollhouse set is a constant delight as its various panels are removed to reveal different compartments. The opening scene, for example, is gloriously realized, with a strong impression of things gone to seed: we see the two ugly sisters, Tisbe and Clorinda, preening themselves in their apartments while their father, Don Magnifico, sleeps in his bed upstairs and the poor put-upon Cinderella figure, Angelina, is hard at work in the kitchen.
The costumes are as beautifully conceived as the set. It was a particularly nice touch to dress the ugly sisters in white at the prince’s castle and then to have Cinderella appear in black, reversing the usual good/evil color coding. And the male chorus members’ rapid costume changes were almost as impressive as their singing.
Italian conductor Bruno Campanella directs the orchestra of the Opéra National de Paris with deftness and precision. And the singing is uniformly excellent, from the hilarious ugly sisters (performed by Anna Wall and Jeanette Fischer) and their father (Carlos Chausson) to the ardent Don Ramiro (Javier Camarena), his sidekick Dandini (the superb Riccardo Novaro) and the philosopher (Alex Esposito). In the title role, French mezzo-soprano Karine Deshayes manages to be both touching and feisty, and, boy, does she deliver on the knockout aria that Rossini gives her at the very end.
Opéra National de Paris: Palais Garnier, corner of Rue Scribe and Rue Auber, 75009 Paris. Tel.: 08 92 89 90 90 (+33 1 72 29 35 35 from abroad). Remaining performances: November 28 and December 1, 6, 8, 12, 15 and 17 at 7:30pm. Tickets: €5-€180. www.operadeparis.fr
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