With a Rossini comedy on a bill featuring a cast of fine singers, you can be guaranteed of an entertaining treat; Victorian Opera’s production of La Cenerentola exceeded expectations in several respects, not least being the splendid orchestral playing.
Victorian Opera has staged some fairly elaborate productions in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall – Master Peter’s Puppet Show immediately springs to mind – but, although La Cenerentola was publicised as a staged version, it was really a hybrid of fully-staged and concert presentation. Much of the stage was devoted to the orchestra with the action mostly taking place in the foreground.
Props were generally kept to a bare minimum, visual interest being supplied by Andrew Meadows’ effective lighting design, Mel Serjeant’s colourful period costumes, and Elizabeth Hill-Cooper’s imaginative direction. Managing a cast of seven principal singers and a chorus of four tenors and four basses was no mean feat in such a limited space, but the action well-coordinated with the antics of the male chorus supplying much of the humour. Precisely timed to fall into rank and give of their vocal best, they played a major part in meeting the “staged” criterion. The storm music, played superbly by the orchestra, was a case in point.
Apart from severely limiting the acting space, having more than thirty orchestral players sharing the stage, many of whom were either members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra or prominent soloists, became acoustically problematic at times. Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director and Conductor, Richard Mills, could not have been more accommodating in reducing the orchestral volume in many of the arias, but voices tended to be overwhelmed in the ensembles. The only real exception was Teddy Tahu Rhodes, who played the role of Don Magnifico, the objectionable, wine-guzzling father, with tremendous gusto and vocal power. Even with the acoustic blinds at half-mast, he still managed to make those rafters rings; from my position in the middle of Row E in the Circle, the resonance was thrilling. Other singers fared less well, and it was no surprise that he was accorded the most enthusiastic ovation at the end.
Fortunately, recitatives were mostly accompanied by Stefan Cassomenos’ skilfully ornamented keyboard continuo registrations, making the softest singing audible. The presence of selected English surtitles also enabled a closer connection with the Italian libretto.
In the title role, Russian mezzo-soprano Margarita Gritskova made a charming figure, her somewhat stylish grey dress – with ne’er a tatter in sight – appealing in its simplicity, while contrasting effectively with the ball/wedding gown. In many of the solo florid passages she sang with a warm but very soft head voice, often with discreet pizzicato strings, her full voice mainly unleashed for the forte top notes and some impressively rich chest notes.
In Rossini’s version the ugliness of the sisters seems to be confined to “affectation, arrogance and conceit” – according to Dandini, who is charged with checking them out disguised as his master, Don Ramiro. In this production Clorinda (Rebecca Rashleigh) and Tisbe (Shakira Dugan) were physically worthy of their doting father’s affection. They worked beautifully as a team, bringing energetic vitality to their roles, and singing with musical precision. Rashleigh’s clear, bell-like soprano was particularly noteworthy in the ensembles, her vocal “ping” cutting through delightfully in a nicely articulated final sextet.
As Don Ramiro, Turkish tenor Mert Süngü displayed excellent agility in the florid passages and secure, ringing top notes. His personable appearance and alert stage presence also made him a convincing fairy tale prince.
Stephen Marsh as Dandini and Michael Lampard as Prince Ramiro’s tutor, more than held their own, even though Marsh seemed at something of a disadvantage when pitted against the vocal might of Tahu Rhodes in their duet. Although the tutor’s role is not a large one, Lampard’s relaxed confidence and focussed tone lent an easy gravitas to the final reconciliation scene where virtue is rewarded, wrongs are forgiven and love conquers all.
There was much to be admired in this performance. The music, often urged along at a sprightly pace, sparkled under Mills’ baton, there was some splendid singing, and the cast appeared to enjoy Rossini’s wonderful comic vitality as much as the audience. Members of the orchestra also visibly enjoyed their own moments of vocal and theatrical participation. As many remarked when leaving the venue: it’s a pity there was only one Melbourne performance.
Heather Leviston reviewed Victorian Opera’s production of “La Cenerentola” by Gioachino Rossini, performed at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, on March 10, 2023.