Saturday’s matinée, May 10, at the Metropolitan Opera saw the second-to-last performance of the current season: Gioachino Rossini’s playful melodrama “La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo” (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant). American mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato in the title role, sadly for the last time, and Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez as Prince Ramiro portrayed the ultimately happy couple, led down the aisle—or in this case, to the top of the wedding cake—by Italian maestro and Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi.
When Rossini’s librettists adapted Charles Perrault’s 1697 French fairytale “Cendrillon,” they omitted the story’s magical elements and other trappings. Consequently, Cenerentola, has no fairy godmother. Looking out for her interests instead is Alidoro, a philosopher and the prince’s tutor, initially disguised as a beggar, later outfitted in a white suit with golden wings. Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni sang the role with elegant phrasing and beautiful tone. His “Là del ciel nell’arcano profondo” (Beyond heaven, in deep mystery) prompted an enthusiastic response from the heavily-sold audience, even before the cabaletta.
No sewing birds appear, nor mice who become footmen. No pumpkin carriage takes Cenerentola to the ball. True, her ball gown lowers from heaven in a trunk hanging from an immense chain, but her transformation occurs vocally. From her simple opening ditty, “Una volta c’era un rè” (Once upon a time there was a king), to the brilliant concluding “Non più mesta” (No longer dejected), her music proclaims that here is a woman coming into her own. Joyce DiDonato beautifully dispatched the ever-increasingly florid lines with seeming ease, and the audience roared when the final curtain fell.
Prince Ramiro switches places with his valet Dandini, to discover the true qualities of the women vying for his hand in marriage. Smitten at once by Don Magnifico’s servant girl, Don Ramiro and Cenerentola sing “Un soave non so che” (A delicate I-don’t-know-what), a charmingly twittery duet. Juan Diego Flórez managed the duet’s tender nuances and thrillingly blasted all six high C’s in Act II’s “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro” (I swear I will find her again), his aria with chorus. The most applauded number brought him back onstage for a highly unusual mid-act curtain call.
No wicked stepmother appears in Rossini’s opera, but Don Magnifico makes a blustery, blundering stepfather who is cruel to Cenerentola. The highly esteemed Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli appeared as Don Magnifico, dispatching the tongue-tripping patter in his arias and concerted numbers as if casually reading a grocery list.
Italian baritone Pietro Spagnoli shone as Dandini, his Met debut role. It is difficult to pinpoint which of his numbers was the most outstanding. His entrance aria, “Come un’ape ne’ giorni d’aprile” (Like a bumblebee in April), effervesced with alacrity. His duets with Prince Ramiro and Don Magnifico were hilarious as well as brilliantly sung.
Australian soprano Rachelle Durkin and British mezzo-soprano Patricia Risley portrayed Cenerentola’s vain, feckless, ever-bickering stepsisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, acting as one unit, with a tendency to overact as the program progressed. Vocally they were individually and collectively splendid, so much so that it seems a crime to categorize their roles as minor characters.
Without the sisters, the opera would have just one female voice, as it was ladies day off for the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. The men of the Chorus acquitted themselves with the ensemble’s usual mastery, so the absence of women was not so deeply felt.
Inside Prince Ramiro’s palace we see the wine cellar, dining hall, throne room and hallways. The Cesare Lievi production—with sets and costumes by Maurizio Balò—places the action in roughly 1920 and does nothing to foster the idea of royal splendor. Judging from the wallpaper, the prince’s palace, devoid of luxury and with scarcely any furnishings, could be in the same rundown neighborhood as Don Magnifico’s decaying baronial estate, Monte Fiascone. Instead of a throne in the eponymous room, a ten-foot-tall wedding cake stands at the ready to be bedecked by bride and groom.
Maestro Fabio Luisi kept the orchestra together and the pace constantly moving like they’ve never played before. The only lagging occurred in Act I whenever Juan Diego Flórez sang his slower, more contemplative music.
The central couple return next season—mid-February through mid-March—for the Metropolitan Opera’s first-time-ever production of yet another Rossini work: “La donna del lago” (The Lady of the Lake). Joyce DiDonato again takes the title role, as Elena, and Juan Diego Flórez again plays a royal in disguise, this time Giacomo (King James V of Scotland). If Saturday’s matinée provides any clue, then the powerhouse pair with prodigious pyrotechnic prowess will only generate more excitement in the 2014-15 season.