Thursday 8 July 2021

Wonderfully satisfying: a very stylish production of Rossini's La Cenerentola at The Grange Festival

Rossini: La Cenerentola - Christian Senn, Heather Lowe, Carolina Lippo, Maria Ostroukhova - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand
Rossini: La Cenerentola - Christian Senn, Heather Lowe, Carolina Lippo, Maria Ostroukhova - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand

Rossini La Cenerentola; Heather Lowe, Nico Darmanin, Christian Senn, Simone Alberghini, Carolina Lippo, Maria Ostroukhova, Roberto Lorenzi, dir: Stephen Barlow, cond: David Parry; The Grange Festival

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 7 July 2021 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
An impressively international cast with 1950s period designs forming a stylish backdrop to a production full of character

We caught the final performance, on 7 July 2021, of Stephen Barlow's production of Rossini's La Cenerentola at The Grange Festival, conducted by David Parry with Heather Lowe as Angelina, Nico Darmanin as Don Ramiro, Christian Senn as Dandini, Simone Alberghini as Don Magnifico, Carolina Lippo as Clorinda, Maria Ostroukhova as Tisbe and Roberto Lorenzi as Alidoro. Designs were by Andrew D Edwards and lighting by Paul Pyant. As with the festival's previous opera productions, the accompaniment was based on a recording made by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, with David Parry playing the continuo accompaniment live.

Barlow and Edwards set the production in the 1950s with film very much as a reference. The opening scene was set in a once glamorous trailer park, with Clorinda and Tisbe (Carolina Lippo and Maria Ostroukhov) lounging in stylish underwear reading period film magazines, one of which featured Grace Kelly who was clearly the style icon for Heather Lowe's Angelina in her glamorous appearance atop a long staircase for the closing scene of Act II. And here the wallcovering echoed a classic Christian Dior design, as did the outlines of the dresses. Edwards' clever multi-level enabled much to be made of the space as well as making scene changes simple (all was on the revolve). The small but hard-working chorus were largely confined to the upper levels of the set, an ingenious touch, except for moments such as the big Act Two solo from Don Ramiro (Nico Darmanin) which was done as a Hollywood song and dance number.

Rossini: La Cenerentola - Nico Darmanin & chorus - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Rossini: La Cenerentola - Nico Darmanin & chorus - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)

But all this style simply formed a backdrop for a production which allowed character to be built. Barlow set things up neatly during the overture when a scene in front of the curtain showed the jokey relationship between Ramiro (Nico Darmanin), Dandini (Christian Senn) and Alidoro (Roberto Lorenzi) as Alidoro co-ordinated a bet between Ramiro and Dandini about swapping clothes and who could dress in the other's clothes the fastest. With both Darmanin and Senn stripping down to vest and pants, I rather began to detect an underwear theme with this year festival [see my review of A Midsummer Night's Dream].

Heather Lowe impressed when we heard her as Angelina with West Green Opera in 2019 [see my review], having previously sung Tisbe in the opera for Welsh National Opera and Opera Holland Park. She has developed into a wonderfully appealing heroine, one who managed to bring a vein of melancholy to the role which makes sense of the denoument with Angelina's strong forgiveness of her relatives. Lowe's wonderfully warm mezzo-soprano voice cast a glow over the music and she had a deft and natural way with the elaborate fioriture. Certainly the two big numbers, at the ends of Acts One and Two, dazzled as they should but there was a natural ease to the performance to and a great sense of style in the way the fioriture blended into the vocal line.

Rossini: La Cenerentola - Heather Lowe & chorus - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Rossini: La Cenerentola - Heather Lowe & chorus
The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
We first saw Nico Darmanin as Almaviva in the Young Artists performance of Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla at Opera Holland Park in 2014 [see my review] and since then have caught him as Ramiro in La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park in 2016 [see my review] and Osiride in Rossini's Mose in Egitto with the Chelsea Opera Group in 2018 [see my review], demonstrating that he has developed into a Rossini tenor to be reckoned with (and he is singing Almaviva with Welsh National Opera this Autumn with Nicholas Lester and Heather Lowe). Here, his Ramiro had charm and style but also a vein of self-doubt which meant that the relationship with Heather Lowe's Angelina developed naturally. His voice has a lithe brilliance to it (I'd love to hear him in some more of Rossini's heroic roles), but he brings character to his deft and impressive passagework so that this was a performance which both dazzled and engaged.

Lowe and Darmanin created something believable in a relationship which has to proceed essentially in a series of coups de foudre and delays, making the opera be about a young couple's relationship rather than a series of dazzling arias and ensembles (though there was plenty of that too).

Dandini is a gift of a role in the right hands, though it can also be temptation to overdo things. Christian Senn [whom we saw as Idreno in Haydn's Armida at Schloss Esterhazy in Eisenstadt in 2018, see my review] was a complete delight, from the first moments of the scene during the overture it was clear he was something of a wide-boy character and his sheer delight in pretending to be his master was a joy to behold. Senn brought a more lived-in charm to Dandini's music, making him a welcome contrast to Darmanin's Ramiro rather than them being two peas in a pod. This brought a sense of colour and movement to the music, and gave us another example of the production's deft characterisation.

That Simone Alberghini is an experienced Don Magnifico was clear from his handling both of the role's 'patter song' moments and the way he manipulated the recitative for comic effect. Yet he really sang the role, using his rich bass-baritone voice to great effect. This Don Magnifico had something of the faded Mafia Don about him, so that the nasty scene in Act One, when Angelina pleads with her father to go to the ball, did not come out of nowhere. You felt this Don Magnifico was never consciously funny, he was simply so absorbed in his self image.

The sisters Clorinda and Tisbe, Carolina Lippo and Maria Oustrokhova, were here glamorous, shallow and selfish (as they should be) rather than ugly, casually and offhandedly cruel rather than nasty. Lippo and Oustrokhova both created nicely contrasting personalities, funny and characterful, and both had a deft way with the music, giving us a lovely musical double act.

Rossini: La Cenerentola - Carolina Lippo, Simone Alberghini, Maria Ostroukhova - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Rossini: La Cenerentola - Carolina Lippo, Simone Alberghini, Maria Ostroukhova - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)

Alidoro is a strange role and, as David Parry's surtitles made clear, there is a strong religious element in the transformation scene. Here Roberto Lorenzo (who also sang Theseus in Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream at this year's festival) made Alidoro quite youthful and rather studious, whilst his use of the multi-level set to watch the other character's antics gave a sense of a watchful and perhaps slightly creepy aspect to the character.

The role of the hard-working chorus encompassed both their wonderful music and movement semaphore accompaniment to the first chorus and the neo-Hollywood twirling of canes in the dance routine on the staircase, making a strongly characterful backdrop for the action. Barlow's decision to have the chorus off-stage for the final scene of Act One solved one of the opera's more curious points, that the party seems to have no women in it apart from the sisters. 

In the pit, David Parry's speeds took no prisoners and he skillfully managed the tricky task of co-ordinating stage and recording in the vivid ensembles in a natural manner, whilst almost making us forget that it was a recording. His accompaniment of the recitatives was always imaginative and kept the pace of the drama moving at just the right tempo. Parry also contributed the intelligently witty surtitles.

Rossini: La Cenerentola - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)
Rossini: La Cenerentola - The Grange Festival (Photo Simon Anand)

This was a remarkably international team with cast members from Malta, Russia and Italy as well as the UK, and at the end of the evening Michael Chance (artistic director of the festival) paid tribute to the hoops that the cast had had to go through to be there. Long may it continue.

This is the second of Rossini's comedies at The Grange Festival [Stephen Barlow and David Parry did Il Barbiere di Sivigla at the festival in 2018, see my review] and after this wonderfully satisfying production of La Cenerentola I do hope the festival continues this vein.

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