Rossini’s Cinderella cannot be said to be grand opera, but Opera Queensland’s production is definitely great entertainment, at every level. Under the assured direction of Roger Hodgman, we can see why it was such a popular piece at the time it was first performed, when it was far more enthusiastically received than Rossini’s earlier work, the Barber of Seville. However, fashions change or, perhaps, it is more to do with the distinction that journalist Jon Casimir made recently, about the variable staying power of popular music: ‘there are classics, and then there are hits’. Whatever the reason, the music of Cinderella does not stay with you long after you’ve seen it, has not worn as well, and is now not nearly as well known as the Barber.
But when fine ensemble work draws everything together as well as it does in this production, both on and off the stage, then what you get is a completely engaging musical romp that audiences of all ages will enjoy. The story is one of the 500 variations on the theme of Cinderella in a version that has several twists away from the one that we’re familiar with. Here, the Stepsisters are not ugly, just very vain, and gloriously peacock-like in Bill Haycock’s vivid costumes. And there is no Stepmother, and no Fairy Godmother.
In fact, and somewhat curiously, this is a very masculine adaptation of the fairy tale, with the three sisters being the only female presence, even at the royal ball. On the other hand, in addition to the prince of course, we have his valet (with whom he switches places for the greater part of the show), his old tutor (and benign Machiavelli, pulling the strings of the action), the very wicked stepfather, and an entirely male royal household and chorus. All of which, perhaps, makes it less than surprising that ultimately the plot has the super-good-wife-to-be, Cinderella, able to recognise the no-longer-disguised-ex-valet when he is shown in his true colours, while he only realises that the servant girl, with whom he first falls in love, must be the mysterious guest at the ball (whom he then becomes smitten with), by the bracelet that she is wearing when a servant girl once more (and this is despite the ‘uncanny resemblance’ they have to each other).
In opera, however, it’s not the play that bears scrutiny, but the players, and the singers. And they all perform at the upper end of the wellness scale. At the outset, it is hard not to be mesmerised by the balletic swoops of the hands of conductor Simon Kenway as they encourage the orchestra towards an elegant rendering of the overture. But gradually our eyes are drawn upwards to what proves to be an extremely versatile stage design by Haycock, this time wearing his set designer’s hat to give us a stylised and skewed set (that occasionally suffers from people-overload), overlooked by a round picture window that comes increasingly into its own to reveal key elements in the plot.
Back to the beginning of the action, however, and the two peacocks, oops, stepsisters, parade around in a bright array of colours as they demonstrate that they are not only not ugly, but have clear and beautiful voices as well. Emily Whelan, as Clorinda, and Dimity Shepherd, as Tisbe, lay the groundwork for what is essential to making this opera a success, being able to act as well as they sing their parts. Theirs’ is a highly enjoyable and comic rendition, with plenty of acerbic flavouring to offset Cinderella’s sweetness of nature. From the simplicity of her first slight song through the increasing complexity and richness of her character and her lusciously rendered arias, however, Donna Balson is the indisputable musical star of the show.
But the male cohort is also well up there on the wellness scale. In ascending order, the prince (Don Ramiro), sung by Kanen Breen, is very able, though somewhat light of voice at this stage of his career, but he certainly looks and acts his part. Both the sonorous tutor (Alidoro), Ian Cousins, and the rollicking, over-the-top stepfather and buffoon, Gary Rowley, are extremely good, and Jason Barry-Smith as the valet Dandini is simply excellent. The royal guard, meanwhile, and guided by chorus master John Dingle, give solid support laced with humorous touches.
The decision to split the languages is one that some may question: while the arias are sung in Italian with sur-titles, the often almost as musically lyrical recitative is sung in the far less melodic sounds of English. In the way it is performed, however, as in all the other elements of this production, this addition to OQ’s repertoire exudes the highest standards of professionalism from every pore, and it was good to see production staff come on stage with the cast and conductor, to take their share of the credit for a production that is a delight to the eye as well as the ear.