A charming twist tells a timeless story


When Rossini decided to set the story of Cinderella to music, several familiar elements were deliberately lost in translation. He replaced the fairy godmother with a philosophical tutor, the wicked stepmother with an unpleasant stepfather. Suggestions of magic were toned way down.

But everything still ends happily for the much stepped-upon, rags-to-couture heroine in this brilliant, human-scaled opera, more a cross-pollination between The Bachelor and Extreme Makeover than a sweet little fairy tale. In its own way, Rossini's La Cenerentola is as timeless as the original source material.

The work's musical and theatrical charms couldn't be more apparent or irresistible than they are in Washington National Opera's production at the Kennedy Center. This is a rare occasion when a directorial concept clicks effortlessly with the libretto and score. The opera has been updated, but not upstaged.

Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser originally devised the concept for London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, relocating the action to the 1950s. (Justin Way is the director responsible for the Caurier/Leiser concept in D.C.)

Christian Fenouillat's seamless set and Agostino Cavalca's costumes delectably create both the run-down digs of Cenerentola's absurd stepfather, Don Magnifico, and the sleekly sophisticated residence of the prince, Don Ramiro. There's nothing busy or fussy about the scenery; much is accomplished merely by shards of color generated by lighting designer David Harvey to accent walls and ceilings.

Most importantly, the story hasn't been lost in all the clever visuals; every aspect seems to complement the music and the action equally and consistently.

I suppose it is possible to regret that Don Magnifico's home doesn't have a fireplace, the source of the title role's nickname - you can't get cinders cleaning an old radiator, which is what we first see this Cinderella (Cenerentola) doing when the curtain opens. But that's a small price to pay for the freshness of the production, which treats us to such sights as lightbulb-popping paparazzi bursting in on the unsuspecting stepsisters, and a Rolls-Royce motor car to drive Cenerentola to the ball on a starry night.

The company has assembled a hot cast, headed by mezzo-soprano Sonia Ganassi, whose Cenerentola is not just brilliantly, but meaningfully, sung. There wasn't one melodic curlicue in her performance Friday night that didn't somehow illuminate and personalize the character. A gorgeous tone and polished articulation added to the allure.

As the prince, tenor Robert McPherson revealed a light and lithe, yet potent, voice and remarkably smooth, elegant phrasing. He's a real find. The juicy role of Dandini, the prince's valet, gave Simone Alberghini a chance to show off a beautifully rounded bass-baritone, innately stylish phrasing and great comic timing.

Aside from some graininess in his tone, Alfonso Antoniozzi (Don Magnifico) did solid vocal work and proved to be a very funny fellow. As Alidoro, who gets Cenerentola to the ball, Randall Jakobsch was likewise effective. In the only gesture to the supernatural in this staging, Alidoro amusingly sprouts wings as he reveals the happiness that awaits Cenerentola.

Her vain stepsisters were delightfully portrayed by warm-toned mezzo Ann McMahon Quintero (Tisbe), whose frilly frocks recalled Hairspray's Tracy Turnblad after a visit to the Hefty Hideaway, and soprano Hoo-Ryoung Hwang (Clorinda), who chirped and even barked - yes, barked - the music with panache. The chorus made sturdy contributions.

Riccardo Frizza's conducting artfully blended propulsion and gorgeous tempo-stretching, and he had the orchestra reveling in Rossini's effervescent score.

La Cenerentola

Where: Kennedy Center, Virginia and New Hampshire Aves., Northwest

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 2 p.m. Sunday, 7:30 p.m. April 20 and 22

Tickets: $41 to $285

Call: 202-295-2400 or visit www.dc-opera.org

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