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A Fairy Tale for Grown-ups

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CINDERELLA

Chicago Opera Theater

at the Athenaeum Theater

April 23, 27, 29, and 30, May 1, 4, and 8, 1988

If one thinks of Cinderella as a children's fairy tale, a la Charles Perrault or Walt Disney, featuring fairy godmothers, pumpkin coaches, and glass slippers, then Rossini's treatment of the story in his opera La Cenerentola ("Cinderella") may seem in many ways unfamiliar, even strange. Rossini chose to turn the story into a sophisticated, sentimental romantic comedy that, by its end, has also become a powerful parable of forgiveness and understanding. In this Cinderella there is no magical transformation from rags to riches--love itself brings about the change, and the metamorphosis that ensues comes as much for those around Cinderella as for the girl herself.

All of this becomes abundantly clear in Chicago Opera Theater's magnificent new production of Cinderella, a Rossini masterpiece that contains some of the finest music to be found in his 30-some operas. A beautiful and tender score with all of the drama and profundity essential to great opera, Cinderella is often neglected because of the demands made on its performers, especially the title role's fiendishly difficult coloratura mezzo-soprano arias.

That problem fortunately was no problem in this production--at least not on opening night. Stella Zambalis as Cinderella offered some brilliant vocal pyrotechnics. She handled the role with ease and style, singing virtually every note of the most difficult runs evenly and on pitch, even during the spots where breathless vocal triplets are sung in relentless succession. Only at the conclusion of the third act did her voice--understandably--become fatigued, but even then her accuracy was amazing.

All of the other singers in this production were also impressive. Glenn Siebert, with a slightly pinched but nonetheless very pleasing tenor voice, was wonderful as the Prince, showing some strain only at the end of act two. The rich, deep baritone of John Fiorito as the stepfather (who replaces the original tale's stepmother) was consistently appealing. Perhaps less appealing but still quite fine were the baritone voices of James Rensink as the Prince's valet, Dandini (who poses as the Prince in acts one and two so the Prince can find a love who knows nothing of his station), and the philosopher (this story's fairy godmother) Alidoro, sung by Greg Ryerson.

The two obnoxious stepsisters were sung with wonderful wit and charm by soprano Janis Knox and mezzo-soprano Kathryn Hartgrove. Both women deliberately and delightfully hammed up all of the worst features of soprano singing (the large vibrato, the volume that overpowers everyone else onstage), recalling Anna Russell. The two consistently stole the funniest moments of the show with their bickering and competition for the Prince's attention.

Louis Salemno conducted the work slowly--at times letting it become a bit ponderous, but still with great control, balance, and precision. His masterful direction caught the orchestral color and subtle details of the score that in Rossini are often lost.

Charles Nelson Reilly was the director. Since the public probably knows Reilly only from the old The Ghost and Mrs. Muir television series and from his frequent game-show and talk-show appearances, they may be tempted to assume that his would be a silly or slapstick approach, much like the company's Cosi fan tutti last season. Nothing could be further from the truth. Reilly, a Tony Award-winning actor and much-acclaimed stage director, is also a lifelong lover of opera who began staging them 12 years ago in Rhode Island with Roberta Peters.

Reilly's direction is amazing for its subtlety and profundity. Many directors routinely reduce Rossini to buffoonery, to a caricature of real life. Reilly instead chooses to view the work as a complex psychological interaction between the main characters--and that interaction stands on its own dramatically. The comic touches are genuinely funny because they are true to life and because the context is so often ironic. Reilly supplies comedy, drama, tension, and resolution, never superimposing his direction on the story and score but drawing the best possible stage action out of both. Seldom is opera directed with the depth and insight of this production.

The acting as well as the singing in Cinderella was top-notch. Both Cinderella and the Prince were played by attractive young people, which helps the story's romantic interest. Their embraces and love seemed genuine. The story's resolution was so tender and so well acted that one couldn't help but be profoundly moved. The opera's timeless lessons--about social stereotyping and human values--were revealed without being preached.

This production, sung in English with excellent diction, is thoroughly entertaining on every possible level.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Drew.

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