Lyric Opera of Chicago is presenting the story of Cinderella as we’ve never seen it before. Gioachino Rossini’s marvelous retelling of this story (“La Cenerentola”) at the Civic Opera House makes us forget the Disney version. There is no fairy godmother. Instead, a towering philosopher sees to it that virtue is rewarded. No cute little mice, just human-size rats – costumed dancing actors who liven up every scene. The wicked stepparent is a pompous, ambitious stepfather. And – surprise – the glass slipper becomes a bracelet, which Cinderella gives to the prince when they part after the palace ball, allegedly because when it premiered in Rome in 1814 it was thought too risqué to show a woman’s foot on stage!
The story of the beautiful step-child who is treated as a scullery maid remains, however, a tale not quite tragedy, but never fully comic either.
Lyric’s cast is packed with agile singers who navigate Rossini’s splendid ornamentations with grace. For starters, the lovely American soprano Isabel Leonard has the title role, and her vocal pyrotechnics are dazzling. She is a superb actress as well, touching our heart as she begs her stepfather for permission to go to the ball and later, tenderly forgiving the selfish members of her step-family, one by one.
The four male characters, all of whom wield some power in Cinderella’s life, are well cast. Don Magnifico, her stepfather, is an ambitious buffoon, but Rossini gives him an aria resembling Figaro’s in his “The Barber of Seville,” which premiered just the year before. Instead of being the go-to guy to get things done, however, Magnifico imagines how busy he’ll be granting favors after he is appointed to high office due to the marriage of one of his daughters to the prince. (We, of course, know that will never happen. Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli inhabits the comic role with gusto and is responsible for many laugh-out-loud moments.)
Pay attention to the prince Don Ramiro (American tenor Lawrence Brownlee) and his valet Dandini (Italian baritone Vito Priante) because they exchange identities. There is a very funny bit of stage business when the valet, dressed as the prince, keeps dropping his hat and, to maintain the deception, the prince must pick it up over and over again. Both are making their Lyric debuts and they are skilled in the bel canto style with experience in Rossini roles. Brownlee’s top notes are particularly sweet, and Priante shapes a warm lyrical line. They play off each other well, and I hope we can see them again at Lyric.
The philosopher, Alidoro, is sung with singular majesty by American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn, an alumnus of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center. Agility is not often a hallmark of singers in his voice category, but he too must deftly handle the composer’s embellishments. And he certainly does.
The two stepsisters, first appearing in bizarre wigs and costumes straight from commedia dell’arte, are portrayed by American soprano Diana Newman and mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen, both first-year members of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center making their company debut. They are skilled trillers and obviously relish their roles as selfish foils to Cinderella’s sweet nature. They’ll be back again this season in Lyric’s world premiere of “Bel Canto” and production of “Der Rosenkavalier.“
The Lyric Orchestra, under the baton of the company’s artistic director Sir Andrew Davis, is bright and precise, achieving near perfection as it performs the crystalline score.
Maybe we have never seen anything like those hilarious rats, Cinderella’s pets — seven actors with exaggerated rat faces, who dance and cavort on all-fours and have been coached to display what choreographer Xevi Dorca defines as a “rat attitude.” You’ll just love them!
Dorca is part of a Spanish team which includes director Joan Font, set and costume designer Joan Guile (both men), and lighting designer Albert Faura. This opera is a co-production of Houston Grand Opera, Welsh National Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu and the Grand Théâtre de Genève.
Guile’s design is magical, never more so than in the second act, when the stage is filled with mirrored panels. They reflect the singers, but also capture the audience in the Civic Opera House. The noir effect eerily resembles some of the dark paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge.
“Cinderella” is indeed a family show. It is a perfect introduction to the art form for children from middle school and beyond. Plus, no one is too old to delight in this wonderful story of kindness and hope triumphing over selfishness, especially since it is well-acted, elegantly sung and altogether beautifully realized.
“Cinderella,” sung in Italian with English super-titles, runs through Oct. 30 at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Running time is three hours and 16 minutes. For dates and tickets, visit Lyric’s website or call 312-332-2244.
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