Monday 29 July 2019

Sheer enjoyment: Rossini's La Cenerentola at West Green House

Rossini: La cenerentola - West Green House Opera
Rossini: La cenerentola - West Green House Opera
Rossini La Cenerentola; Heather Lowe, Filipe Manu, Nicholas Mogg, Zoe Drummond, Sioned Gwen Davies, Matthew Stiff, Blaise Malaba, dir: Victoria Newlyn, cond: Matthew Kofi Waldren; West Green Opera
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A largely young cast in a production which positively fizzed with excitement and enjoymnet

This year's West Green House Opera presented a pair of operas, Strauss' Die Fledermaus and Rossini's La Cenerentola in the temporary theatre placed at the side of the glorious West Green gardens, as well as all sorts of other events during the week of the festival including smaller scale performances of Rossini's early comedy L'Inganno Felice.

We caught the second of two performances of Rossini's La Cenerentola at West Green House Opera in a production directed by Victoria Newlyn with designs by Richard Studer, with Matthew Kofi Waldren conducting. The cast featured Heather Lowe as Angelina, Filipe Manu as Ramiro, Nicholas Mogg as Dandini, Matthew Stiff as Don Magnifico, Zoe Drummond as Clorinda, Sioned Gwen Davies as Tisbe and Blaise Malaba as Alidoro.

Newlyn and Studer solved the problems of the theatre's limited stage facilities by having a fixed set, thus obviating the scene changes between Don Magnifico's house and the Prince's palace. Studer's witty set referenced the fact that most of the audience members would be picnicing in the West Green Gardens. His set featured an abandoned Citroen 2CV at one side and a Landrover at the other, with Don Magnifico and his family reduced to primitive camping in and around the 2CV, whilst the Prince's 'ball' was in fact a posh country picnic by the Landrover, and the setting was roughly modern.

Musically, this was a reduced performance using an orchestration by Jonathan Lyness which used just single woodwind and one horn, and doing without the male chorus (the initial chorus heralding the Prince's entry was sung off-stage by the soloists, another one was pre-recorded, and in some of the ensembles the chorus part was integrated into the solo parts).

The once past the rather exposed opening of the overture, this was a lively and spirited performance which ran at quite a fast pace. Rossini's comic operas are a joy, but their musical demands can be as significant as those of his serious operas. The largely young cast turned in some very fine Rossini singing, this performance seemed to zip along with a lovely tightness to the passage-work, yet the music was always expressive too.

The many ensembles in the piece were impressively done, and whilst Victoria Newlyn avoided the pitfall of over-choreographing the piece these set pieces were neatly set up and the cast was enviable in the way they combined music and movement.

Heather Lowe has sung one of the ugly sisters in Rossini's opera for Welsh National Opera and for Opera Holland Park so it was lovely to see her making the move up to the title role. She made a charming, and quite spirited, Angelina, combining fast-paced passage-work with some expressive detail. Her plea to her father to be allowed to go to the ball was profoundly moving, yet elsewhere Lowe allowed Rossini's busy vocal lines to express Angelina' sheer joy, culminating in a glorious account of her final aria.

The New Zealand-Tongan tenor Filipe Manu (who will be joining the Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artists later this year) made a handsome Ramiro. He has an engaging stage presence, and moves well, combined with an easy grace in Rossini's high tenor part. He and Lowe made an appealing pairing, and their duet was one of the highlights of Act One, and throughout he and Lowe created a strong connection. Manu is quite a find in this repertoire and his attractive, lyric voice suited the music whilst his technical command of Rossini's style was impressive.

From the moment of his first appearance, completely overdressed (in a kilt!) as the 'Prince', Nicholas Mogg's Dandini was a well-meaning yet delightfully comic creation having great fun as the centre of attention in the second half of Act One. Mogg and Stiff made Dandini and Don Magnifico's duet on Act Two (when Dandini has to admit that he is only the vale), something rather funny yet exciting too.

As the 'ugly' sisters, Zoe Drummond and Sioned Gwen Davies were a delight, creating a sense of the sisters complete inability to realise quite how 'ugly' their behaviour was, making them both funny and rather touchingly sad. Their treatment of Lowe's Angelina trod a nicely fine line between comic and rather nasty. Drummond and Davies created a pair of nicely differentiated characters, whilst functioning brilliantly as a unit in the ensembles.

Like his younger daughters, Matthew Stiff's Don Magnifico was self-absorbed enough not to realise quite how ridiculous he was. Whilst Stiff made Don Magnifico a magnificent comic creation, he could be cruel to Lowe's Angelina, and the moment when he announced that she was dead was truly heart-stopping.

Blaise Malaba was a sober yet warmly supportive presence as Alidoro, despite his youth Malaba created a nicely fatherly feel to the character, and his interventions as Deus-ex-Machina had a nice sympathy to them. Malaba's dark hued voice added a touch of sobriety and sense to the busy excitement of the evening which made a nice contrast.

In the pit, Matthew Kofi Waldren acted the necessary role of traffic policeman admirably, keeping the complex ensembles on track, yet he also ensured that everything fizzed with excitement. With such a small orchestra (16 strings, single woodwind and horn) this was a very lithe performance, which suited the young voices and Waldren tailored his approach to this. But there was also plenty that was expressive, and having the music zip along did not preclude some beautifully touching moments, with plenty of space for the singers.

Rossini: La cenerentola - West Green House Opera
Rossini: La cenerentola - West Green House Opera
This was a performance which captured the comedy and pathos of Rossini's opera, mixing fizzing excitement with more serious moments and the entire cast gave us a sense of how much they were enjoying themselves.

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