Opera review: Goodness Triumphs Through Enjoyable ‘Cinderella’

Cinderella 1Hopefully the ghost of Gioachino Rossini is happy with the way Nashville Opera lovingly handles his Cinderella (La Cenerentola). Wednesday’s exuberant dress rehearsal points the way toward a very enjoyable run among the living today, Sunday and Tuesday in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Polk Theater.

Director John Hoomes has settled on an approach that respects the composer’s original intent – lightness abounds with no hints of the Romantic layers later generations added to Rossini’s 1817 operatic dramma giocoso (jocular drama). And through his staging and pacing he’s permitted his performers to dive into the fun, which allows us to enjoy the story’s silliness, and tenderness, all the more.

Cinderella 2For those unfamiliar with the opera, yes, it’s essentially the tale of a young woman (mezzo-soprano Leah Wool) rescued from a rough servant’s life when she falls in love with a prince (tenor Javier Abreu) that is quite similar to other versions of the Cinderella story. But there’s no “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” in this one; instead of a fairy godmother there’s a philosopher and helpful advisor to the prince named Alidoro (bass-baritone Ryan D. Kuster). And the wicked stepmother is gone too – in her place we have the cruel but nevertheless comedic stepfather Don Magnifico (bass Jason Hardy).

Oh, but there are the mean stepsisters, and what delightfully funny ones they are in the hands of soprano Kristina Bachrach as Clorinda and mezzo-soprano Caitlin McKechney as Tisbe. These two 2013 Mary Ragland Young Artists are making their Nashville Opera debuts; with their excellent singing and acting the pair make a very favorable impression.

Cinderella 3Wool and Abreu are making their initial bows with the company too, but it’s certainly not the first time these highly acclaimed singers have played the roles of kind-hearted Angelina/Cinderella and dashing prince Don Ramiro. It’s easy to see – and hear – why, since both know how to make the most of the score and the story.

Wool’s mezzo timbre is the vocal equivalent of rich, sweet cream; she handles scales, text and other demands of her part with the appearance of ease that only strong talent and hard work can create. From her entering theme “Una volta c’era un re” (“Once upon a time there was a king”) to the forgiving balm of “Nacqui all’affanno” (“I was born into sorrow and tears”) Wool is an absolute joy to behold and hear.

Cinderella 4Abreu’s voice has the kind of deep foundation one might expect more often from a baritone than a tenor, adding strength to his virile portrait of the prince, such as when he seeks the woman who has won his heart while singing the Act II aria “Si, ritrovarla io giuro” (“Yes, I swear I will find her again”). That’s not to say he can’t hit his high notes well, because he can, and like Wool he handles transitions quite deftly.

Hardy – previously seen here in La Bohème – is a hoot, setting the tone for comically vain and greedy character as his powerful (but playful in this opera) voice proclaims “Miei rampolli femminini” (“My female descendants, I disown you”) to his daughters in Act I. Kuster’s golden voice guides us through the beautiful “La, del ciel nell’arcano profondo” (“In Heaven, on the high throne of power”) and he employs his striking presence to good effect in his first appearance with Nashville Opera.

Cinderella 5There’s another prominent player who deserves praise – baritone Corey McKern (previously seen here in La Bohème and The Marriage of Figaro), who is the prince’s fun-loving servant Dandini. He has terrific comic timing and gestures to go with a fine voice, and makes this production all the merrier as a result.

When does Chorusmaster Amy Tate Williams not have the Nashville Opera Ensemble in fine form for big ensemble moments? They are as reliable as ever. The same is true for Conductor Dean Williamson and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the pit. I know this is the Music City, but I still marvel each time I hear these folks perform because they’re as good as anyone anywhere.

Other Nashville Opera production elements remain as ever top-notch. That includes the imaginative Tony Fanning set from Virginia Opera, costumes from Kentucky Opera coordinated by Pam Lisenby, Sondra Nottingham’s always-good wigs and makeup, Robert Gilmer’s props and Karen Simpson Palin’s lights (which were still being finalized during the dress rehearsal but already showed great attention to focus and mood).

Cinderella 6So Rossini, rest easy – your Cinderella is having a very good time down at the Polk. Goodness, courtesy Nashville Opera and its fine collaborators, does indeed triumph.

Rossini’s “Cinderella” plays 8 p.m. today, 2 p.m. Jan. 27 and 7 p.m. Jan. 29 in the Polk Theater at Tennessee Performing Arts Center (505 Deaderick St.). Sung in Italian with projected English translations; running time two hours, 20 minutes (two acts with one 20-minute intermission). Pre-performance “Opera Insights” discussions begin one hour earlier. Tickets ($26-$102.50, plus the opera’s Pay-What-You-Can option) for the shows are now available by calling Nashville Opera at (615) 832-5242, the TPAC Box Office at (615) 782-4040, or online at www.nashvilleopera.org.

Cinderella 7*Photos by Reed Hummell courtesy Nashville Opera.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).