La Cenerentola

Margarita-Gritskova-photo-by-Michael-PohnVirtually anything Rossini is bound to get a weekend off to a great start and Victorian Opera’s semi-staged concert of La Cenerentola did just the thing!

Superb musicianship, easy-flowing drama and some exciting singing filled Elisabeth Murdoch Hall – Melbourne Recital Centre. Nevertheless, on a broader level, there were some buts. 

As the Italian opera composer predicted himself, his 1817 premiered La Cenerentola overshadowed even the popularity of Il barbiere di Siviglia which premiered just short of one year earlier. 

With a libretto by Jacopo Ferretti, it is one of innumerable variants of a story in which recognition and success is achieved after a period of destitution and neglect. 

Here, there is no fairy godmother, no pumpkin transformed into an ornate carriage and no glass slippers in the more familiar story of the young cinder-stained girl called Cinderella 

The story continues to influence and the opera remains a staple of the standard repertoire today. 

So it seemed that Friday evening’s performance of the work to open the company’s 2023 season somewhat short-changed the potential to go to town on creativity and showcase some of Rossini’s most exquisite music to more than a one-night-only audience – Launcestonians did however get to experience the entertainment back in November with their own state symphony orchestra.

Rossini gives the protagonist Angelina much to celebrate in the end in this delightful comic drama – a thoughtful interpretation seen from a more morally and socially conscious perspective than that of a rags-to-riches tale. 

The work speaks volumes to a contemporary audience, a missed opportunity in director Elizabeth Hill-Cooper’s period costumed tableaux despite a libretto making attempts at an update.

A lighting mishap – otherwise flooded marvellously by Peter Darby’s lighting design – a surtitles glitch and the numerous distractions arising from the cast looking for direction in the hall’s side-placed monitors didn’t help either. 

Incorporating three small platforms symmetrically placed across the fore-stage and the rarest of props, the action nevertheless matched the vibrancy of the score while the copious entrances and exits were neatly resolved.

An exhilarating highlight, Artistic Director Richard Mills’ thoroughly energetic and forward-driving command of the music was expressed expertly by the more than 30 members of the Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra. 

Mills illuminated the overture – Rossini’s own recycled overture from La Gazzetta a few months earlier – to reveal most appealing respiration and tension in the music. The finesse continued throughout with particular beauty and gradation in Rossini’s signature crescendos and pitter patter.

In the demanding title role, Russian mezzo-soprano Margarita Gritskova traversed the arc of servant girl to princess Angelina with borderline success, an almost unpredictability in vocal amplitude tarnishing what otherwise is a beautifully refined instrument. 

Gritskova’s deliciously pliant magic certainly resided in the softer piano and whispered range of the voice. The voice, at times however was almost inaudible in the exuberant ensemble pieces but its power and capability did become evident, no more than in the her magnificent coloratura stunner and act two finale, Nacqui all’affanno … Non più mesta.

As Prince Ramiro, Turkish tenor Mert Süngü convincingly acted the disguise of his valet Dandini and won more than Angelina’s heart with his warm-toned, dexterous and intelligently crafted singing, delivering a knockout Si, ritrovarla io giuro early in act two. A sweet and sincere chemistry with Gritskova’s Angelina pervaded. 

The less-travel-required for remaining roles received outstanding local talent. Burnished baritone Stephen Marsh relished his day as a royal in the part of “Principops” Dandini and Michael Lampard employed entertaining caricature and impressed in voice as the prince’s plot-steering sagacious tutor Alidoro. 

Angelina’s hapless and daft stepfather Don Magnifico could not have been more entertaining with thundering bass-baritone Teddy Tahu-Rhodes turning every moment on stage into pure gold. 

In bright and harmonized voice, penetrating soprano Rebecca Rashleigh and velvety mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan taunted and tussled as his two vain and vacuous daughters Clorinda and Tisbe. And a chorus of 8 male courtiers took easily to the comic tasks and energising musical rhythms.

More generosity with dates and in the staging could surely have paid off, but a near full house showed their appreciation generously. And where were the younger, less grey-haired sorts? Forgotten? Or at Moomba? 

La Cenerentola 
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall – Melbourne Recital Centre, Southbank Boulevard, Southbank
Performance: Friday 10 March 2023

Image: Margarita Gritskova – photo by Michael Pohn

Review: Paul Selar