I have yet to attend one of Joyce DiDonato’s concerts or opera performances and not spend some portion of the program with a big stupid grin on my face. It took a while to get to the grin in this case, but it happened by the end.
I had never seen this opera before or heard it the whole way through – there are bits of it, like Cenerentola’s last aria, “Nacqui all’affanno e al pianto . . non più mesta” that are recital staples and which I have heard before, but that’s about it. It’s a bit different from the Cinderella story most of us read as as small children. There’s no fairy godmother or wicked stepmother. Rather, Cenerentola lives with her stepfather and his daughters, and her trip to the ball comes because an angel witnesses her kind-hearted nature and decides to cut her a break. There’s no time limit, no magic carriage, and no glass slipper. Rather, C and her prince have a pair of matching bracelets. Which I will admit is rather sweet. And it’s not the failure of the stepsisters to get their big feet into C’s missing Jimmy Choo that nixes their chances: it’s that they’re obviously not very nice people. In addition, Cenerentola falls for the prince when he is disguised as his own valet (long story) and the story makes clear that she loves him because he’s a nice guy, not because he’s a prince.
There are bits of this that seemed rather strange to me – a ball, or at least a dinner party, where only Cenerentola’s stepfamily and the prince and his valet and advisor are present. It presents plenty of opportunities for buffoonery, as does the focus on the stepfather’s meatheaded social climbing. Buffa is definitely the word for this in general. There are a series of those Rossini “oh my god this is so confusing my head is spinning!” scenes/ensembles at various points in the opera, and the thing is 1. it isn’t – we all know what is going on and 2. this opera comments on how crazy! its own story is often enough that you just want the libretto to give it a rest.
The music gives the singers plenty of opportunities to strut their stuff. Juan Diego Florez as the prince was pretty much what I remembered from hearing him in L’Elisir d’Amore a few years ago. He’s funny and audience-friendly and a virtuoso bel canto singer – the prince’s aria post-ball where he swears to go and find Cenerentola involves one long held high note towards the end and resulted in applause sufficient that he had to return and take another bow. It was one of those odd moments where I wasn’t sure what I was applauding, in the sense that it’s not music that’s intended to move you deeply, so it’s not like all the cheering was because the singing wrung anyone’s heart out. Do people who know all the technical nuts and bolts of singing have a special appreciation for this kind of thing, in the sense that the music presents a certain set of technical challenges just to get it to come out right, and the appreciation lies primarily in how well the performer navigates all the twists and turns of it with style and comes out on top at the end? If so, fair enough, but I feel weird loudly applauding primarily for the gymnastics.
If I am going to hear Joyce DiDonato in a bel canto opera, I think I honestly prefer things like Maria Stuarda. The title character in Cenerentola doesn’t actually get to do all that much, musically or dramatically. She has some personality in the beginning, when she’s singing her sad song while cleaning and keeps singing it to annoy her step sisters (the song has some nice lowish-lying parts that are fun to hear), but mainly things just happen to her and she’s nice. It’s not all that interesting. I mean, even Mary Stuart gets to be angry, act self-righteous, start an argument or two and stew in her own juices for a while – she’s got something to sing about. Cenerentola, not as much. As a result, DiDonato doesn’t have the opportunities for drama that make her singing generally so interesting. But she was in typical form for Cenerentola’s last big number – this part was utter fun to hear and there wasn’t a note out of place (earlier on, there were a few moments where I had misgivings about the intonation – it might be a result of me not knowing the score and thus not hearing it right, or it might not have been).
Oh, and to the fellow audience member whose phone began to ring right as Cenerentola was singing about how what she would like is some respect? I bet you were so embarrassed! You should have been. SHUT YOUR DAMN PHONE OFF, YOU DOOFUS.