Thursday, 5 September 2019

All was stylish & expressive, leaving us to enjoy the music & the comedy in such an engaging way that the time sped by: British Youth Opera in Rossini's La Cenerentola

Rossini: La cenerentola - Adam Maxey, Sian Griffiths - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Rossini: La cenerentola - Adam Maxey, Sian Griffiths - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Rossini La Cenerentola; Siân Griffiths, Liam Bonthrone, Holly Brown, Natalie Davies, Thomas Mole, Adam Maxey, Jerome Knox, dir: Stuart Barker, Southbank Sinfonia, cond: Peter Robinson; British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 Sept 2019
A youthful and charming account of Rossini's comedy with stylish and engaging young cast

Rossini: La cenerentola - Holly Brown, Natalie Davies, Jerome Knox - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Rossini: La cenerentola - Holly Brown, Natalie Davies, Jerome Knox
British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Gioacchino Rossini's dramma giocoso La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo (Cinderella or Goodness Triumphant) is about young people, the protagonists are a young girl and a young man seeking love, along with the young man's valet and the young girl's sisters. Yet the musical requirements of the piece, the sheer technical complexity of Rossini's vocal writing, generally mean that the protagonists are played by singers who are rather older. Though, in fact, the first Cenerentola, Geltrude Righetti, was only 24 when she created the role in 1817, and she had already created the role of Rosina in Rossini's Il barbiere di Siviglia, ossia L'inutile precauzione the year before (the first Dandini was a similar age though the first Don Ramiro was some 10 years older).

So it was with great delight that I saw that British Youth Opera's 2019 season at the Peacock Theatre included Rossini's La Cenerentola (seen 3 September 2019) which they performed in a production directed by Stuart Barker with designs by Bek Palmer. Cenerentola was Siân Griffiths, Don Ramiro was Liam Bonthrone, Dandini was Jerome Knox, Clorinda was Holly Brown, Tisbe was Natalie Davies, Don Magnifico was Adam Maxey and Alidoro was Thomas Mole. Peter Robinson conducted the Southbank Sinfonia. The opera was sung in William Judd's 1986 English translation.

 La Cenerentola with young voices doesn't work, you need to have the right voices, a mezzo-soprano who has a strong lower range (the role was originally written for a coloratura contralto) and a tenor comfortable with the lyrical high writing common in tenor parts of this period, not to mention the other roles. The cast fielded by British Youth Opera was impressive in its balance and strength, these were all young voices that we could enjoy in their roles and I look forward immensely to hearing how the singers develop.
Rossini: La cenerentola - Liam Bonthrone, Jerome Knox & chorus - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Rossini: La cenerentola - Liam Bonthrone, Jerome Knox & chorus - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Of course, simply casting the roles with young singers isn't enough, you require the right young singers.
And BYO had assembled a fine, cast with a mezzo-soprano whose voice went right the way down, a tenor whose voice went right up (and Rossini's high tenor writing is fierce), as well as a lovely balanced cast for the rest of the roles, including a Don Magnifico who made up in stage presence what he might have lacked in the age for the role.


Rossini: La cenerentola - Thomas Mole - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Rossini: La cenerentola - Thomas Mole
British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Performing the work in English makes a terrific challenge to the singers, and in the past I have not found the Peacock Theatre very sympathetic when it comes to getting the text over. This time they succeeded superbly well and the performance was very communicative. The standard of sung English has become rather uneven in the last 20 or 30 years (though I have to admit that as well as the wonderfully communicative performances there were also terrible ones where nothing could be understood). So it is admirable the companies like BYO are training singers in the difficult art of singing communicative English. Whilst it is lovely to hear Rossini in Italian, his comedy tells in all sorts of ways when sung in a good English translation so that the musical phrase is accompanied by a clear text which is points up.

Barker and Palmer's charming production set the piece in a period around 1910. Don Magnifico's dilapidated mansion was all black, white and grey as were the costumes with the only splash of colour being Don Ramiro and Dandini's costumes. When the location transferred to the palace, full colour suddenly appeared with Art Nouveau-style sets showing influences both of Vienna and of the Glasgow school. At the palace, the sisters' dresses stayed the same style as earlier but were suddenly in lurid colours.

The sisters' outfits were advanced fashion of the period, all alarming shapes and angles, emphasised by Holly Brown and Natalie Davies' body language. Cinderella's ball gown by contrast was more traditional, under-stated Worth-style elegance in muted tones. Body language was important in the production. Whilst this felt one of the least choreographed production of the opera that I have seen (only the Act One finale was a real production number), movement was important and body language was all. The sisters contorted themselves into all sorts of alarming 'expressive' shapes whilst Cenerentola's deportment, whatever she was wearing, was exemplary. As Don Magnifico, Adam Maxey used his slenderness and height to create a strange awkward character that reminded you of physical comedy like Mr Bean.

There was an act drop, of moon and stars, used before each act which, along with mime for Alidoro and the chorus, helped suggest they were more than they seemed. The chorus was a very active, very eager participant in Alidoro's schemes, and their very eager youthfulness was very appealing factor in an opera where the chorus is often discreetly in the background.

A word about the hair! Don Magnifico and his daughters all had rather mad wigs to match their personae, and the men of the chorus, whilst not wearing wigs, head each done something similarly mad with their hair, all adding to the air of topsy-turveydom.

Rossini: La cenerentola - Liam Bonthrone & chorus - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Rossini: La cenerentola - Liam Bonthrone & chorus - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
This production had no particular axe to grind and simply told the story with great style and charm. It helped that the young cast had a wonderfully engaging way with them.

Siân Griffiths, as Cenerentola, had a suitably contained demureness to her stage presence which contrasted with her wonderfully rich voice. Her opening song was finely phrased, showing off her warm vibrant tones and sense of line. This was a lovely even instrument, going all the way up and down; the ends of the descending scales in her final rondo were superb.

Liam Bonthrone's Don Ramiro had a charming naivety to him, coupled with an admirable facility in Rossini's tenor writing, with just the right sort of vibrant yet not overdone top notes, and this role is high. He and Griffiths made a lovely pairing, simmering nicely in their Act One duet. Bonthrone and Jerome Knox made a great double act as Don Ramiro and his valet.

Rossini: La cenerentola - Sian Griffiths, Holly Brown, Natalie Davies - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Rossini: La cenerentola - Sian Griffiths, Holly Brown, Natalie Davies - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Knox's preening Dandini was a delight, comic whilst not overdone and with Knox displaying a nicely vibrant yet mobile baritone. Tom Mole's Alidoro was a sober young fogey in tweeds with terrific facial hair. His leap of delight as he exited at the end of Act One was an indication of the youthful glee and eagerness which he brought to the role. And he sang his aria well too, creating a really engaging figure.

The sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, were completely wonderful characters, comic in their looks and actions, over-eager and desperate. Holly Brown and Natalie Davies created two contrasting yet vibrant personalities, egged on by Adam Maxey's equally self-obsessed Don Magnifico. The result was a trio where the comedy was delightful yet not malicious.

In the pit the 34 players of the Southbank Sinfonia gave us an engagingly lively account of the score, but never overpowering the singers.

Rossini: La cenerentola - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Rossini: La cenerentola - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Not all the passage-work was pin-sharp but all was stylish and expressive, leaving us to enjoy the music and the comedy in such an engaging way that the time sped by.

Cast, crew and creatives: Holly Brown - Clorinda
Rossini: La Cenerentola - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Natalie Davies - Tisbe
Siân Griffiths - Angelina
Liam Bonthrone - Don Ramiro
Jerome Knox - Dandini
Adam Maxey - Don Magnifico
Thomas Mole - Alidoro
Joseph Chalmers - Chorus
George Reynolds - Chorus
Matthew Salter - Chorus
Theo Perry - Chorus
Ben Knight - Chorus
Tormey Woods - Chorus
John Holland-Avery - Chorus
Joseph Hookway - Chorus
William Rennie - Chorus
Matthew Secombe - Chorus
Samuel Kibble - Chorus
Susannah Hardwick - Clorinda cover
Anna Cooper - Tisbe cover
Lauren Young - Angelina cover
Laurie Slavin - Don Ramiro cover
Ben Knight - Dandini cover
Daniel Rudge - Don Magnifico cover
John Holland-Avery - Alidoro cover

Rossini: La Cenerentola - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Chloe Rooke - Assistant Conductor
Laura Heikkila - Repetiteur
Mairi Grewar - Repetiteur
Louisa Lam - Repetiteur
Charlotte McKechnie - First Assistant Director
Eleanor Burke - Second Assistant Director
Raphae Memon - Assistant Designer
Pete Butler - Assistant Designer
Rosie Burgering - Production Assistant
Gabriel Finn - Assistant Lighting Designer
Julia Quante - Assistant Designer
Georgia Thomas - Costume Assistant
Nikita Lund - Costume Assistant
Ryan Jacques - Stage Manager
Kanoko Tobe - Deputy Stage Manager
Jason Mai - ASM Book cover
Jaimie Wakefield - ASM Props
Chloe Thomas - Costume Maker
Lucy Waterhouse - Movement Assistant
Abigail Harris - Wigs & Make Up Supervisor
Shadeh Mehrinfar - Wigs & Make Up Technician
Jessica Hart - Wigs & Make Up Technician

Rossini: La Cenerentola - British Youth Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Peter Robinson - Conductor
Stuart Barker - Director
Bek Palmer - Designer
Caitlin Fretwell-Walsh - Movement Director
John Bishop - Lighting Designer
Laura Pearse - Coustume Supervisor
Della Jones - Vocal Coach
Chamia Choudhury - Head of Hair and Make Up
James Anderton - Production Manager
Michael Wardell - Company Manager
John Nicoll - Senior Stage Manager
Julian Johnson - Senior Stage Manager
Jocelyn Bundy - Senior Stage Manager
Paul Salmon - Head of Lighting
Michael Bolton - Production Electrician
Rob Oatley - Head of Stage
Tom Baum - Production Carpenter
Chris Tindall - Production Carpenter

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