Cinderella and her Cinderfella

I mean, a diva and a divo that could both easily, nay joyfully
negotiate the considerable and varied vocal demands of the title role and the
Prince? And handle spot-on comic acting as effortlessly as they
embodied well-judged sentimental moments that truly touched the heart?
And on top of it all, both be possessed of exceptional, unassuming
youthful good looks and that truly elusive “star quality”?

Well, ’tis the season, and dreams do come true. Those who whine and
pine for some elusive “Golden Age” or another should shut up and
hurry to Catalonia to catch Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez in what may
just be definitive performances in Rossini’s enchanting

The beautiful, blond, Ms. DiDonato quite simply has it all. She can
dispatch roulades with aplomb; color and vary seamless melismas to convey any
variety of emotions; float high, middle, or low notes (and everything in
between); spout out fiery dramatic phrases; or pull back to pianissimi of
crushing frailty. It seems nothing in the role eludes her. She is a major
artist with a beautifully schooled, richly handsome instrument, at the top of
her game. Above all, she invites us into her world with a winning presence
and an infectious delight, sharing her prodigious gifts in the service of one
of Rossini’s most enchanting characters.

That she brought us to our knees and then to our feet with a perfectly
judged “Non piu mesta” almost goes without saying. It was one of
those thrilling performances when my heart began racing as fast as the
coloratura, and the entire audience scarcely dared breathe. Applause and a
low roar began as soon as she released the climactic note, and it built and
built until the play-off finished and we seemed helpless in wanting to out-do
each other in shouting our approval.

This is the kind of moment we dream of encountering in our years of
routine, nicely competent opera-going, isn’t it? A spontaneous communal
moment mercifully unspoiled by the likes of the Met Shush-ers (aka “The
Applause Police”), where sudden perfection and the outpouring of
recognition collide to make for an electric, one-of-a-kind shared experience.
But far before this famous set piece, our star impressed from her very first,
firmly-voiced “Una volta cera un’ re,” and then she just
went from strength to strength. I felt much like Renee Zellweger in
“Jerry Maguire” when she said “You had me from

Matching her note for note, and dripping charisma (he could bottle and
sell it), Mr. Florez currently has no equal in this repertoire. Having heard
him now on seven occasions, this cool bel canto dude just never mis-fires.
Everything in his beautiful, bright lyric voice is perfectly aligned and
evenly produced; he wisely judges just how far to push it in volume; his
remarkable agility knows no apparent bounds; he can spin a hushed or
full-throated legato phrase that the great Kraus would envy; and he can leap
octaves and tenths (maybe fourteenths) in a single bound to perfectly
centered high notes.

His Latin temperament and impossibly boyish dark good looks are certainly
icing on the cake to ladies of both sexes (the five Milanese gentlemen with
whom I shared my box were certainly enamored, prompting much passing of
binoculars). Perhaps his most special skill as a complete performer is that
he knows how to effortlessly play comedy ó without mugging, without shtick,
without gilding the lily ó he just “gets it.” So here is a
Prince Charming that is fun, passionate, a looker, and…he sings, too. No
wonder he gets the girl!

In my previous encounters with “Cenerentola” I have certainly
always enjoyed the tenors I heard, nice voices, nice enough acting. But I
never quite realized what a great part Don Ramiro could be until I first
caught Mr. Florez in it in London (well-partnered with Kasarova). It is cause
for rejoicing that he is just a plain ol’ star singer who can make any
of his assumptions a star part.

Not to say that these two were alone in their glory, for the Liceu
assembled a most winning cast. At first I thought that Bruno de Simone (Don
Magnifico) and David Menendez (Dandini) might should switch roles. The former
was more suave of voice and presentation than I had imagined for Magnifico,
and the latter a little more blustery and over-the-top than any of my
previous Dandini’s. But once I set aside my pre-conceptions, both won
me over with their well-realized (and well-traveled) interpretations.
Although the frequent rapid-fire patter from both was well-executed, what
impressed even more was the underlying beauty of tone both brought to the
occasion, de Simone more lyrical, Menendez more burnished.

Simon Orfila’s warm, mature, and artfully deployed bass-baritone
contributed another big plus with a lovingly conceived Alidoro. In the rather
one-note dramatic roles of the step sisters, Cristina Obregon (Clorinda) and
especially Itxaro Mentxaka (Tisbe) always acquitted themselves well,
sparkling vocally in their spunky chatter-patter, and adding substantially to
the many ensembles.

Joan Font directed a highly inventive production that has also been shared
between Houston Grand Opera, Welsh National Opera -Cardiff, and
Geneva’s Grand Theatre. Mr. Font and his designer Joan Guillen have
come up with a cornucopia of clever touches, a riot of well-coordinated
colors, and a unifying concept that deploys a “chorus” of eight
dancers costumed as rats (with long pointy noses) who prettily pose, comment
with movement, change scenery, and offer props along with tea and

Amid all the bustle, and funning around, and subsequent glamor, these
judiciously used rodent groupings kept us well grounded in Cinderella’s
humble milieu. Indeed, she began “Nacqui allíaffanno e al
pianto” kneeling among the rats and charmingly tousling their heads as
a sort of ‘thanks’ for having been such willing accomplices.

While all the tongue-in-cheek costumes and wigs were revelatory and aptly
matched to the characters, I found our heroine’s white ball gown to be
a bit of a disappointment. In this signature moment of her arrival at the
ball, the skirt looked too short, like a high water model, and the veil that
was removed revealed a huge white powdered wig that, from my seat at least,
looked for all the world like a white Afro so big it could eclipse Angela
Davis. Mr. Florez’ white wig, while accurate, might also have been
traded in for a brunette model to better complement his coloring.

I initially wondered why Cinderella came out for the final scene in her
black, gray and white(designer) rags and a tiara, but it became clear that
Mr. Font had one more trick up his sleeve. During her final aria, she
distanced herself more and more from the Prince, ending alone in a spotlight,
and was once again rat-handed her broom. Was it all a dream? A unique touch
to end a uniquely delightful production.

Albert Faura’s excellent lighting merits mention since it was such a
willing accomplice in the afternoon’s effects. The back lighting of the
basic scenic structure instantly transformed it from rat-infested home to
palace (in this case, also rat-infested). The interior lighting of the
fireplace created a wonderful effect as the mantle lifted and it grew to
create/reveal the imposing palace doors. And in a novel touch, the storm
scene was accompanied by the rats operating a shadow curtain showing a
silhouette of the prince in his mini-coach riding through the blustery night
en route to find the girl of his dreams.

Last but not least, Patrick Summers conducted with stylistic flair, and
ably accompanied the recitatives from the keyboard. Inexplicably, he got a
few undeserved hoots at curtain call. All I can figure is he was apparently
being taken to task for a total of about six bars in Act I when our otherwise
fine Dandini slightly misjudged an entrance, and later had a very minor
moment of rhythmic uncertainty. When things are moving at such a breakneck
clip, the slightest moment of inattention can cause a hiccup. But I found the
maestro always to be large-and-in-charge, and he led an effervescent reading
that was not only well-paced, but all the while pleasingly sensitive to the
balancing introspective utterances.

Seen on 23 December, this struck me as a perfect gift for the holiday
season, which I recommend to companies and opera lovers everywhere as a fine
alternative to the usual parade of “Hansel and Gretel,”
“The Magic Flute,” and “The Nutcracker.”

At least on this occasion, in light of this dreamy Rossini, it seemed a
new “Golden Age” might be possible after all. And after all, it
is the season of dreams, isn’t it?

James Sohre

image_description=La Cenerentola by Josep Guinovart
product_title=Gioachino Rossini: La Cenerentola
product_by=Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona
product_id=Above illustration by Josep Guinovart