Review: Wit, whimsy, vocal fireworks make Lyric's 'Cinderella' soar

Sir Andrew Davis
Chicago Tribune

Joan Font's production of "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella") was such a resounding success at Houston Grand Opera in 2007 when it premiered during Anthony Freud's directorship that you can easily understand why he would want to revive this delightful take on Rossini's sparkling comedy for his first full season at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Lyric's first "Cenerentola" of the season Sunday afternoon at the Civic Opera House, which marked the work's return to the local repertory after a decade, proved that Rossini lightning does strike twice, sometimes.

Fairy tales are supposed to be fantastical, of course, but the handful that have been turned into operas often are too Grimm and not nearly funny enough. This one reminds you how much wit and mirth lies in Rossini's masterful score, if only stage directors like Font know how to bring it to the surface. Besides brimming with mirth from beginning to end, this "Cinderella" surrounds its main characters and their florid vocal fireworks with pure theatrical whimsy.

Singers and choristers are dressed in cartoonish costumes and beehive wigs that make fun of period fashion; the designs are drenched in exaggerated primary colors; and the stage is alive with elegantly choreographed movement. The disguised valet Dandini (Italian baritone Vito Priante) is wheeled into Don Magnifico's (Italian bass Alessandro Corbelli) household atop a white horse with two heads. The multi-colored costumes and beehive wigs worn by Cinderella's nasty stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, are beyond over-the-top.

All this comes courtesy of Els Comediants, director Font's theater collective from Barcelona, which created this co-production between Houston, Welsh National Opera and opera companies in Barcelona and Geneva. The troupe's theatrical ingenuity serves a splendid cast headed by American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and American tenor Lawrence Brownlee, along with superior orchestral and choral work under Lyric music director Andrew Davis.

Forget Disney, forget Rodgers and Hammerstein. In this sly new take on the familiar fairy tale, everything we see on stage is Cinderella's fantasy. Abused by her venal stepfather and mean stepsisters, our heroine, Angelina (Leonard), dreams of being whisked away from her shabby life of domestic servitude by a kindly fairy godfather, Alidoro (American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn) and into the arms of a handsome prince, Don Ramiro (Brownlee).

And since this "Cinderella" is an elaborate amalgam of surreal dream and sober reality, the singers, dancers, conductor, orchestra and chorus must walk a tightrope between childlike naivete and adult sophistication. They all do so marvelously, thanks to the deftness with which Font orchestrates the action and the clarity, rhythmic verve and buoyancy Davis brings to his first "Cenerentola," a few ragged orchestral entrances notwithstanding.

Read the rest of the review here