Edmonton Opera’s rendition of Cinderella is a funny, modernized take on Gioachino Rossini’s 1817 masterpiece La Cenerentola that’s as much a display of great theatre as it is a demonstration of the beautiful limits of the human voice.
Every acting performance in Cinderella is superb. Don Magnifico (Peter McGillivray) is great as a bumbling idiot who respects food and wine more than he respects people, and Tisbe (Sylvia Szadovski) and Clorinda (Caitlyn Wood) play their obnoxious sister roles perfectly. But it’s Dandini (Michael Nyby) who really steals the show.
It’s as if director Robert Herriot gave him the green light to have as much fun on stage as possible. From the moment Dandini walks down the house isle disguised as Prince Ramiro—liberally employing a royal wave—the energy from the audience blooms.
As he swaps clothes and roles with the real Prince—to determine the true nature of potential royal brides—he delivers snide remarks and hilarious statements of the obvious with his song, and engages in physical comedy that stands out from the rest.
Without exaggeration, Dandini must have spent at least seven minutes of the production lying on his back, still singing while dodging broomsticks, kicks, and platters of food. He has an uncanny knack for singing with a punchable grin on his face at all times.
His jester-like attitude contrasts with Prince Ramiro (played by John Tessier,) whose tenor voice creates a strong sense of innocent youth. Prince Ramiro is disguised as a valet for most of the opera, but maintains a sense of dignity while managing to play beneath the other nobles on stage when appropriate.
Prince Ramiro’s performing affinity with Cinderella (Krisztina Szabó) is great, too. The musical highlight of the opera comes early on in a love struck duet where Cinderella and the disguised Prince fall in love at first sight. Both singers carry lengthy solo sections, but the confluence of sound between them as they simultaneously flit around their vocal registers is a perfect metaphor for the unity of souls we often dream of when we speak of love.
Repetition in these songs is the key to the subtitled success of the production. The sung Italian is accessible thanks to projected English subtitles above the stage, but single sentences or fragments are often repeated dozens of times with musical variations. This opens up plenty of room for the opera singers to showcase their substantial acting chops.
They roll around, mime emotions, and posture towards each other constantly. The frequency of movement and variety of strenuous physical positions held while singing powerfully, is impressive.
Herriot liberally uses slow-motion blocking, and time-frozen cutaways with all the extra space the music and libretto affords him. These moments are often comedic, insightful, or both, but never ineffective.
Some of the performance’s success must be credited to Rossini’s original music. The deeper voice and utilized range of Cinderella creates a feeling of maturity. Early on, she hits the higher notes as more of an acting device than a show of ability, spiking when she locks eyes with the Prince, or punctuating a curt retort to her sisters. And when I say curt, I mean openly indignant.
As the opera nears its end, the chorus sings “she is the epitome of goodness,” and Cinderella herself bemoans how, “she suffered in silence.” Neither statement is true. While she might seem pious in comparison to her reprehensible family members, Cinderella is a feisty and independent woman. She sings to herself while her sisters are present, openly inviting their annoyance and rebukes, and she brazenly vocalizes her frustrations about her living situation to the Prince, and to the audience, on several occasions.
The servants are freewheeling while scarfing food and singing happily, even as attendants to their masters. Only Cinderella’s sisters and father stand as rambunctiously vile examples of humanity here, throwing sweaty clothes haphazardly around with no regard for hygiene, or literally kicking away the valet (Prince) while singing in disgust about his lower standing.
The contrast between their ideologies creates a brilliant comedic escape, and it’s a farcical approach that draws out more laughs than I’ve ever heard in an opera house.
Musically, there’s only one demerit between the superb lead performers, the chorus, and the orchestra. During full company ensemble sections, rolling and repeated staccato figures from the chorus sometimes slip out of sync with the orchestra. Only mildly distracting, things are never more than a beat ahead or behind.
I have to wonder if this is the price paid to keep the theatrical aspects of the performance in the foreground, while the orchestra and conductor Peter Dala accompany them in the background behind translucent drapes, rather than in a pit.
Whatever the case, Edmonton Opera’s Cinderella is an excellent, laugh-out-loud modern production of the classic tale.