The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: “Cinderella” goes to Hollywood as the Madison Opera shows how Rossini got rich by writing the TV sitcoms and romantic comedies of his day.

May 1, 2012
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By Jacob Stockinger

So, there I was, heading off to the opera, wondering about two things:

What did ordinary  people do before movies and television for entertainment? Surely it wasn’t all reading books or playing music at home, since as amusement they probably didn’t have a sufficiently high quota of triviality, lightness and laughs.

And: What accounted for such commercial success that the 19th-century opera composer Rossini (below) could retire for the rest of his life into Parisian decadence and self-indulgence at age 37.

I found my answers — it turns out they are related to each other — Sunday afternoon in Overture Hall.

Enter the Madison Opera’s thoroughly enjoyable production of Rossini’s “Cinderella” (La Cenerentola), the first-ever production of this well-known classic work by the local opera company.

The first thing to know is that stage director Garnett Bruce (below) updated the work to Depression-era Hollywood in the 1930s and that the search for a princess became a search for a star – or was it a wife? Well, it WAS confusing in the opera. But then it also IS confusing in real life since many movie moguls end up marrying their Leading Ladies. Or make Leading Ladies of their wives.

Still, though people who know other productions of “Cinderella” (La Cenerentola) and opera purists may not approve of the re-working, the audience roared with laughter and gave the production a prolonged and enthusiastic standing ovation.

Much of the production’s appeal came from the very colorful, glitzy Busby Berkeley-type sets (below in a photo by James Gill) and the witty, stage business including using rolled R’s and explosive T’s a repetitive sextet and props such as the clever juggling of hat and an umbrella. The traditional royal castle became a Hollywood studio, and the glass slipper became a diamond bracelet. This production inhabited a world of metaphorical equivalencies. It worked for me.

True, at times the stage business, sets and costumes seemed over-the-top. But then what is opera or Rossini all about if not going over the top — kind of like TV sitcoms and Hollywood blockbusters.

But make no mistake, despite all the updating much of the production’s appeal also came from the original score.

Members of the pit orchestra, recruited from the Madison Symphony Orchestra and playing under the able baton MSO conductor and Madison Opera’s artistic director John DeMain (below), turned in a solid and precise performance. At no time did the singers and orchestra seem out of synch or out of balance.

And they captured that bouncy, upbeat, major-key Rossini sunny cheerfulness – soo-o-o—Italian – you know, that playfulness that relies so much on toodling winds and melodic strings as well as repetition and  the endless looping of musical themes and words.

But the major credit, of course, goes to the singers.

Singing the title role, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack (below, in a photo by James Gill) just soared above the rest of the cast. A standout, she possessed the whole package: tone, diction, range and power – astonishing Ethel Mermanesque power. Plus, her acting was very good, too. This was her Madison debut – not counting Opera in the Park — but The Ears says: Sign her again, the sooner the better. Bring her back.

Mack was well matched with tenor Gregory Schmidt (below, in a photo by James Gill) who played the Prince/Director of Palace Pictures’ Don Ramiro and who has sung three times with the Madison Opera. His strong voice was clear and his acting was convincing, if sometimes it seemed just a bit less than whole-hearted, as in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance steps. But all in all, he proved as reliable keeper, a real find who should also sing the title role if they ever do an opera called “Mr. Speaker: The John Boehner Story.”

Another well matched pair were Cinderella’s sisters, played by local favorites mezzo-soprano Jamie Van Eyck  (below right, in a photo by James Gill) and by soprano Amy Mahoney (below, left). These two often stole the show with their sisterly bitchiness and outsized ambition to beat the plain, sincere and kind-hearted Cinderella to stardom. Brava! And Brava!

Much of the fun came especially the second act, much tighter and shorter than the first, in which the valet Daniel Belcher (below, center ) turns into some witty meteoritical or self-referential commentator on the script and production.

Cinderella’s ambitious father, baritone Steven Condy (below), stole quite a few scenes, less by his able singing that by his acting and stage business, and by his gift for projecting a comic and confused gruffness combined with endearment.

All in all, this opera production went down easily and smoothly, with the enjoyable, if forgettable or predictable, fun of a romantic comedy with, say, Julia Roberts or Cary Grant. Or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It was, in short, a romp.

Opera started as a populist art form for the people, not for critics or scholars. And that is exactly how this production found its success: With ordinary people.

If you want to explore the deeper meaning of the fairy tale “Cinderella,” you might look at other productions or psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s study “The Uses of Enchantment.”

Me, I was happy just to flee a cloudy, cool and rainy Sunday afternoon and end up in such an enchanting, charming and escapist production.

I suspect Rossini enjoyed his retirement very much. And I suspect he would have loved the excesses of Hollywood every bit as much as he loved the depraved charms of Paris.

And here’s the secret that the composer knew: Cinderella was a man.

The real rags-to-riches Cinderella was none other than Rossini himself.

Here is what some others thought of the production.

Here is a link to the review by John W. Barker for Isthmus:

Here is the review by Lindsay Christians and West High School student Elena Livorni for 77 Square, The Capital Times and the Wisconsin State Journal:

Here is Greg Hettmansberger’s review for Madison Magazine and the blog “Classically Speaking”:

Here is Bill Wineke’s review for WISC-TV and

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