La Cenerentola - Royal Opera House, 20 December 2007
I was privileged - or maybe not - for this performance to be seated right over the orchestra pit, at the side of the stage. So for once I could see not only what the orchestra was doing, but also what faces the conductor was pulling. It came of course at the expense of a clear view of the stage, and the orchestral sound was raw. But given that this production's action is concentrated centre stage, and the ensemble is small, these weren't huge disadvantages. I don't think I have ever seen a happier face on a podium than Evelino Pidò's. Even when orchestra and singers slipped momentarily apart, he maintained the manic joy of a cocker spaniel out for walkies, and was rewarded with a brisk and lively response from his players.
Although on this evidence Magdalena Kožená's acting skills hover somewhere around the Jessica Simpson mark, it's not clear to me why reviewers (example) have been so ruthlessly critical of her performance.
She certainly looked the part, all blonde curls and downcast glances. Her perpetual goggle eyed bafflement wasn't always the right fit dramatically, but at least it supplied the endearing charm that Cenerentola requires. And her singing was one liquid ribbon of exquisite silvery sound - too languid to be truly Italianate but beautiful all the same. Non piu mesta seemed like hard work, but she got through it cleanly, if rather coolly. She's told interviewers that Rossini is not a favourite of hers -- that much was obvious from the detachment of her performance -- but it was no disaster, and I suspect that supplied with more direction she could have delivered a more credible performance.
Toby Spence was more convincing as a rather earnest Don Ramiro. His voice has more muscle than flexibility, and the coloratura was effortful, but he did (just about) manage all the high C's in Si, ritrovarla io giuro.
Ranked against Covent Garden's last Don Ramiro, the phenomenal Juan Diego Flórez, of course he doesn't measure up, but then who would? The only part of Spence's performance which really didn't work was the opening to Zitto, zitto, piano, piano, taken so quietly that it was literally inaudible - and I was only a few feet away.
Simone Alberghini's Dandini, more of a confidant than a servant, was a splendid foil. His performance was all the more credible for the subtlety of distinction between his disguised and real personas. Considering he'd only joined as a late stand-in for the sick Stéphane Degout he slotted in remarkably well with the tricky vocal ensembles and this production's fussy blocking.
Alessandro Corbelli displayed immaculate comic timing and technique as the grasping Don Magnifico, though at times so manically underlined it was as if he'd wandered in from a different production. Elena Xanthoudakis and Leah-Marian Jones were endearingly repulsive as his daughters, and served up some of the best singing of the night.
The production's updating of the action to the 1950's is not simply an excuse for lurid costumery and a splendid Bugatti to serve as Cenerentola's coach. The outmoded notion of social advancement through marriage took on a more modern economic emphasis in Don Magnifico's dilapidated home. Don Ramiro managed his staff rather than ruling them, and Dandini was his master's quick-witted equal.
Frustratingly, the more controversial ideas, when the otherwise amiable buffoon Don Magnifico physically beats Cenerentola, then feels up the two sisters later, formed odd and uncomfortable punctuations rather than properly explored themes. The sparsely furnished sets, too, seemed unfinished rather than intentionally spare. It was as if time, money and inspiration had all fizzled out in the home straight. Only the eternal and unrelenting vitality of the music papered over the cracks.