Manitoba Opera trumpeted goodness as it opened its auspicious 50th anniversary season with Rossini’s La Cenerentola, an ideal choice for pandemic-weary audiences stage directed by Winnipeg’s Robert Herriot, and notably its first full-scale production since its Manitoba premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah in November 2019. The intrepid company with a steely backbone has weathered the storms since March 2020 with a series of strategically planned, COVID-19 friendly recitals and chamber operas, as it now embarks on its next half century.
Last staged locally in 1996, the opera buffa based on Jacopo Ferretti’s libretto, in turn inspired by French author Charles Perreault’s Cendrillon, tells the archetypal tale of Cinderella, who is bullied and berated by her “mean girl” stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, as well as—in this case—bellowing, beer-swilling stepfather Don Magnifico. Enter Prince Ramiro, who is instantly smitten by Cenerentola a.k.a. Angelina’s pure heart, and they all live happily ever after.
With the 205-year old opera now transplanted to the halcyon days of the 1950s, Deanna Finnman’s haute couture frocks originally designed for Edmonton Opera’s production in December 2017, also directed by Herriot, became luscious eye-candy for the senses. Sheldon Johnson’s brilliant set design comprised (mostly) of a skeletal frame of a modern, mid-20th century bungalow effectively lit by Scott Henderson serves as a canvas for the principals, as well as the much welcomed return of the Manitoba Opera Chorus led by Tadeusz Biernacki. Maestro Tyrone Paterson crisply led the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra throughout Rossini’s bubbly score of melodious hits.
With the show originally slated for last spring, however postponed to this fall due to rising COVID-19 numbers at the time, Winnipeg-based mezzo-soprano Lizzy Hoyt’s dazzling debut in the title role proved well worth the wait. The versatile singer—who moonlights as a nationally recognized Celtic songwriter/multi-instrumentalist, and also performed Cenerentola with Brott Opera in June—fleshed out her prototypical, fairy-tale character with deep humanity, while tossing off her light-as-a-feather colouratura passages with aplomb. She pulled out all the stops in Angelina’s big Act 2 aria, “Nacqui all’affanno … Non più mesta,” as one final, enthralling display of bel canto, fuelled by her flawless intonation and agile voice leaping through her full range with sparkling precision.
Juno-award winning tenor John Tessier, reprising his role of Prince Ramiro from the Alberta production, and last appearing in MO’s Werther in 2016, filled the stage with his naturally regal presence and innately lyrical voice, even when first appearing in cognito as his own valet. So strong are his acting skills that Tessier inadvertently upstaged himself during Act 2’s “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” in which he pledges to find his love after she returns home from the ball/dinner party. Wriggling out of his valet uniform into his more-princely tailcoat, while eliciting loud guffaws from audience members, only drew focus from this eagerly anticipated showstopper, still delivered with palpable resolve.
Baritone Nicholas Borg (MO debut) shone as a diamond in the rough as Ramiro’s “real” valet Dandini, with his fine vocals at times difficult to hear during Act 1’s “Come un’ape ne’ giorni d’aprile,” and his relatively restrained portrayal of this famously delicious role needing to go much further.
Charismatic baritone Peter McGillivray who last sang Bartolo in MO’s 2015 The Marriage of Figaro, crafted a larger-than-life Don Magnifico with no-holds barred physical comedy skills, booming through his opening Act 1 aria, “Miei rampolli femminini,” or later, spitting out the rapid-fire text during his duet “Zitto, zitto, piano, piano” performed with Borg.
It’s been far too long since we’ve seen Winnipeg-based soprano Andrea Lett light up this stage, whose Clorinda showcased her confident, pitch-perfect vocals (not to mention razor-sharp acting chops) matched equally by mezzo-soprano Andanya Dunn (MO debut) as her sisterly counterpart, Tisbe. The pair infused the show with plenty of pizzazz and comic punch, as they mugged, “vogued” and sparred for the Prince’s favours (as well as navigating a gazillion quick costume changes), while easily holding their own during Act 2 sextet “Questo è un nodo avviluppato” that became an overall highlight during November 12th’s opening night performance.
Bass Kirk Eichelberger—and the lone American principal in the otherwise all-Canadian cast, and who last appeared locally as the Commendatore in MO’s Don Giovanni in 2018—as mysterious philosopher Alidoro embarks on his own Cenerentola trajectory, first appearing as a scruffy “beggar” scouting potential brides for Ramiro, to later morphing into a doppelganger for pony-tailed German designer Karl Lagerfeld as the opera’s chief plot-driver in lieu of a fairy godmother. Several scenes in which he waved his hands to spur characters’ action à la master puppeteer only felt cheesy, as did Act 2’s storm scene performed in molasses-slow motion that frankly didn’t work.
However despite these few flaws—and with nary a fairy godmother nor any magical mice in sigh—La Cenerentola’s enduring message that hope, kindness, love and goodness still possesses the power to triumph over adversity is as potent as ever, making Rossini’s operatic ode to our better angels sing.