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“La Cenerentola” is not a Cinderella story one would expect when walking into the Emerson Majestic Theatre, with its antique balcony boxes and domed ceiling. After a splendid overture conducted by David Angus, in which the strings build the show’s tension and the flute introduces its magical quality, the red curtain reveals two social media influencers with excessive makeup, dazzling ring lights, flip flops, and garish pajamas. Immediately, “La Cenerentola” shows the audience that it is not a traditional opera.
Directed by Dawn M. Simmons, The Boston Lyric Opera’s creative new production of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola” ran Nov. 8-12 at the Emerson Cutler Majestic Theatre. The story takes place in Boston neighborhoods where a Prince disguises as his valet, searching for the woman his mentor suggested he marry. The opera’s lack of magic emphasizes the second part of its title, “Goodness Triumphant,” which values the ability to change fate through acts of kindness and goodwill. The Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “La Cenerentola” has excellent singing and acting, even though its effort to modernize is at times too out-of-place, taking away from the opera’s aesthetic.
As the story unfolds, Cinderella’s story notably lacks magical transformations of pumpkin into carriage, mice into coachman, and ragged clothes into gown. The stepmother is replaced by a stepfather, the fairy godmother appears first as an Amazon delivery courier, and the accidental leftover slipper is replaced by an intentionally given bracelet. The opera is also a parallel to Rossini’s commentary of class dynamics during his own time, as the Boston Lyric Opera’s adaptation comments on the class tension of old money in Boston.
Angelina, played by mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall, enters with a beautiful ballad about a king marrying a commoner, which repeats several times in the story. The vocal role of Angelina is demanding for a specialized coloratura mezzo-soprano, with complex, quick note changes, but Hall’s lyrical voice beautifully shines through the ballad with its melancholy tone. The music gives the audience an immediate sense of magic in the disenchanted world. Hall masters the challenging coloratura techniques throughout the opera, singing with grace and an optimistic spirit despite her character’s dire situation. Hall’s emotional portrayal of Angelina makes the character relatable, especially in her final aria “Nacqui all'affanno ... Non più mesta.” The aria evolves beautifully, as Angelina recounts her childhood sorrow and her amazement at her sudden change of fate. Her authentic transcendental expression is moving, due to Hall’s well-executed tension in crescendos and embellishments of coloratura notes.
Levy Sekgapane, as Prince Ramiro, convincingly portrays his emotional struggle to hide his love for Angelina while disguised as the valet. His first encounter with Angelina is marked by the excitement of love of first sight, characterized by the short, staccato notes in his song. Sekgapane sings wonderful high Cs in Act II, full of energy. However, his voice is not as strong and resonant in comparison with other baritone and bass-baritone voices in the performance. Instead, there is a distinguishing spoken quality to his voice. Sekgapane’s overall performance brings a positive energy to the entire show with much liveliness and vigor.
As the valet, Levi Hernandez strikes a skillful balance of comical moments and composed nobility as he pretends to be the Prince. Hernandez’s voice has a rich resonance across the stage, which is strikingly pleasurable. However, Brandon Cedel (Don Magnifico) places too much emphasis on physical gestures that sometimes seem out of place in the opera. His bass-baritone voice is terrific, but his narcissistic, feminine expressions are often a disjuncture to the opera itself. Comical elements make the performance lighthearted, but his excess vulgar jokes feel too forced to make the audience laugh.
Jenna M. Lord’s scenic design contributes greatly to the disenchantment of the story. Don Magnifico’s house is set with a steel-skeleton construction, with stairs that reach the corner where Cinderella-esque lead character Angelina often retreats. The set is abstract, a bit overly simple, lacking a fairytale feeling. Nonetheless, the structure provides a different level for Angelina to retreat to when she sings from the attic, which emphasizes Angelina’s isolation from the rest of her family. This simple mechanical set contrasts the scenic design for the party in Prince’s country estate, where green ivy climbs up the half-oval stars, with tall yellow lights and sprinkling stars on the backdrop. The party scene conveys the fanciness of an upper class party and sets the stage for Angelina’s mysterious appearance and the dreamlike nature of the interaction between Angelina and Prince Ramiro.
Likewise, Bailey Costa’s lighting design plays a key role in the show. During Act I, a stark white light gives an experimental and contemporary feeling to the story. While the glaring brightness of this specific lighting choice is overpowering, the overall lighting design makes conscious choices that enhance character development of the opera. At the scene where Angelina, Don Magnifico, the Prince, the Prince’s mentor, and his valet stand in a straight line facing the audience, they take turns singing, with the contrast between smooth legato and short notes portraying each character’s insecurities and their attempts to get at each other’s intention. The lighting shifts to a lower angle that reduces the lighting on their faces, which echoes the emotionally expressive vocal music. These lighting choices contribute positively to the emotiveness of the scene.
The costumes, designed by Trevor Bowen, are flashy and bright, marked by vibrant colors. The two stepsisters wear pink and purple pajama pants with flower garlands and household slippers. Don Magnifico’s costume is even more comical, with a glaring pink shirt and loud, multicolor pajama pants. The flashy costume matches his comical physical gestures. Angelina, in contrast to the bubbly pink and purple, wears a bluish-green shirt and long jeans. The contemporary costumes reflect present-day style. The props do the same, as cell phones, Dunkin’ Donuts treats, and Amazon deliveries remain present onstage. The excessive contemporary consumerism breaks the atmosphere of the opera. The costumes — especially in the first act — are too casual and feel out-of-place in the opera.
Overall, Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “La Cenerentola” gives the audience a fresh take on Rossini’s bel Canto opera within the setting of Boston. Along with the exceptional orchestra, the actors engage the audience in laughter and bring them into the wonder of Cinderella and kindness.
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