Sunday 8 October 2023

Musical pleasure: strong & stylish performances from a young cast in English Touring Opera's new production of Rossini's La Cenerentola (Cinderella)

Rossini: Cinderella - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Rossini: Cinderella - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Rossini: Cinderella (La Cenerentola); Esme Bronwen-Smith, Joseph Doody, Edmund Danon, Arshak Kuzikyan, Nazan Fikret, Lauren Young, Edward Hawkins, director: Jenny Ogilvie, conductor: Naomi Woo; English Touring Opera at the Hackney Empire

An enviable young cast in a stylish, musical account of Rossini's opera buffa that balances the serious and the comic

The second opera in English Touring Opera's (ETO) Spring season is Rossini's Cinderella, contrasting in style and genre from Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea but both pieces have strong women who come out on top, an intriguing link. Rossini's Cinderella opened at the Hackney Empire on Saturday 7 October 2023 in a production directed by Jenny Ogilvie and conducted by Naomi Woo. Esme Bronwen-Smith was Cinderella with Joseph Doody as Ramiro, Edward Hawkins as Alidoro, Nazan Fikret and Lauren Young as Clorinda and Tisbe, Edmund Danon as Dandini and Arshak Kuzikyan as Don Magnifico. Designs were by Basia Binkowska.

Having trained in dance and acting, Jenny Ogilvie has worked extensively as a movement director in theatre and opera, whilst her work as a director in opera has included Britten's The Burning Fiery Furnace at Scottish Opera and Freya Waley-Cohen's Spell Book and Francesca Caccini's La liberazione di Ruggiero dall'Isola d'Alcina at Longborough Festival Opera. Her dance experience showed in the way that music and movement were integrated in the production of Cinderella. The large set pieces felt part of the drama rather than bolted on, as sometimes happens, and frankly you often lost any sense that this was choreographed at all.

Rossini: Cinderella - Esme Bronwen-Smith, Joseph Doody - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Rossini: Cinderella - Esme Bronwen-Smith, Joseph Doody - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

The idea behind the production seemed to stem from the role of Alidoro (Edward Hawkins), the prince's tutor who played a fairy godmother like role became a manipulative museum curator. However, nothing was explained, we had to work things out for ourselves. James Conway, ETO's previous general director, usually contributed an article in the programme book when he directed a production, articulating his thoughts, and this is something that ETO should encourage. It would have been interesting to have Ogilvie's thoughts on her production.

It was set in a museum, Basia Binkowska's designs were simple but effective. A modern museum with Edward Hawkins' Alidoro as curator. They were having a move-around, and the museum's mannequin's came alive. Tisbe (Lauren Young),Clorinda (Nazan Fikret) and Cinderella (Esme Bronwen-Smith) were all in the museum cabinets, whilst the other characters were wheeled on storage crates. In particular, both Joseph Doody as Ramiro and Edmund Danon as Dandini showed a remarkable ability to freeze in awkward poses. The pale body-stockings the cast wore to evoke mannequins had a strangely nude look too.

Once you accepted the slightly strange premise, Ogilvie told the story clearly and directly, with little extraneous fuss. The focus was on character and singing, and she drew some fine performances from what was strikingly ensemble cast, in itself rather remarkable in such a virtuosic opera. The work was cut, Don Magnifico (Arshak Kuzikyan) did not have his scene in the wine cellar, which was no loss, and there were other smaller cuts. The result was a tauter drama than usual, helped by Christopher Cowell's fine English translation which sang very well.

Rossini: Cinderella - Edmund Danon, Joseph Doody, Nazan Fikret, Lauren Young  - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Rossini: Cinderella - Edmund Danon, Joseph Doody, Nazan Fikret, Lauren Young  - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Esme Bronwen-Smith won first prize in the 2022 Kathleen Ferrier Awards. She has already made something of a mark at ETO, singing Nerone in Handel's Agrippina and Marchesa Melibea in Rossini's Il Viaggio a Reims, and she confirmed her bel canto chops by contributing a remarkable, poised and finely sung performance of Cinderella. She has a lovely vibrant, yet expressive voice that was well able to move from the tremulous in the initial duet with Joseph Doody's Ramiro right through to the vibrantly assertive virtuosity of the final solo. But there were more than fine singing here, she brought an elegant sense of melancholy to the character which fitted admirably, along with an engaging stage presence. 

We have come across Joseph Doody singing smaller roles at ETO as well as at the National Opera Studio, but here he was in the limelight with a wonderfully confident and fully rounded portrayal of Prince Ramiro. Visually, this Ramiro was a bit nerdy and rather retiring, but Doody's voice was anything but. It is a fine, vibrant instrument that did far more than negotiate Ramiro's roulades, made the Prince a pleasure to listen to. The result was to give Ramiro rather more backbone than usual, make him feel in more control of the action. I enjoyed every moment of Doody's performance, from the bravura fireworks to the more tender intimacy. I have to confess, I would love to hear him in Rossini's Barber of Seville in an uncut performance that gives us the Count's final showpiece (which Rossini reworked as Cinderella's final aria).

Edmund Danon made a physically imposing Dandini; rather taller than Doody's Ramiro, this difference was used to striking visual effect when Dandini was pretending to be the Prince. Danon made quite a serious Dandini, there was rather less hi-jinks to his performance than can sometimes happen. His performance lacked the manic glee that sometimes comes with the role, but then Ogilvie's production as whole lacked this sense of manic glee too, this was a story well told. Danon's singing brought vivid colour to the role, and he was well adept at the required roulades so that he, Doody and Bronwen-Smith made a terrifically well-balanced trio. All three sang and interacted with character and musicality.

Rossini: Cinderella - Lauren Young, Arshak Kuzikyan, Nazan Fikret  - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Rossini: Cinderella - Lauren Young, Arshak Kuzikyan, Nazan Fikret  - English Touring Opera
(Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

Ogilvie's more focused, less Monty Python approach, showed most in her treatment of the sisters, Clorinda and Tisbe, played by Nazan Fikret and Lauren Young. They were nasty and, at one point, physically violent to Cinderella, but also rather more rounded out as characters, less commedia dell'arte. It helped that Fikret and Young gave wonderfully engaging performances, we might not like this pair of demanding young ladies, but we could recognise and sympathise. Fikret and Young made a terrific double act, and whenever they were on stage their presence was felt. 

Arshak Kuzikyan's Don Magnifico took a little time to settle, his initial contributions felt a little underpowered, but he gradually came into his own, and whilst English may not be his first language, his diction was admirably clear. This was a less orotund, less well-padded account of the role, more focused. His nastiness to Bronwen-Smith's Cinderella, when he denied her the trip to the ball, was no less vicious than usual but came as less of a shock. Edward Hawkins always had a lovely twinkle in his eye as Alidoro, a relatively small but important role and here Hawkins brought out a strong character and stage presence. The men of the ensemble, Zahid Siddiqui, Sandeep Gurrapadi, Theo Perry and Peter Norris, made a striking looking foursome, all hard working, combining music and movement to vivid effect.

One of the delights of the production was Christopher Cowell's wonderfully intelligent and imaginative rhyming English translation. This was an ever sparkling delight and it is to the cast's credit that they got a remarkable selection of words across, which added both to our understanding and our enjoyment.

Conductor Naomi Woo arrives trailing clouds of approbation from her native Canada. She has worked in the UK before, but this may have been her opera conducting debut here. The orchestra played Derek Clark's orchestral reduction, and I have to confess that the opening of the overture seemed somewhat tentative. But whilst there were moments during the opera when the strings in particular felt underpowered, overall Woo drew fine orchestral performances. That opening over, her pacing felt well-chosen so that the patter sections and the fast ensembles never felt overdone or ran away with themselves, yet there was always a feeling of excitement. She clearly had the confidence of her singers and I think that this is a performance that will grow.

Rossini: Cinderella - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)
Rossini: Cinderella - English Touring Opera (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

The pleasures of this performance were musical and dramatic, the way the singers sang the music, interacted and created strong characters on stage. I remained unconvinced by Ogilvie's mise-en-scène, but if you accepted this then there was lots to enjoy and ETO has managed to draw together an enviable young cast.

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