There are few operas that can be quite as much fun as La Cenerentola, Rossini's delightful version of the Cinderella story, and there are few mistreated stepdaughters and Prince Charmings who make such a perfect couple as Joyce DiDonato and Javier Camarena, each of whom brought a first-night audience at the Met Opera's current revival to their feet cheering.
Camarena is quite simply the most thrilling young tenor singing today. He was a knockout in the Met's revival of La Sonnambula earlier this season and he scored another one last night when he stepped in for an ailing Juan Diego Florez for the first of the three performances of La Cenerentola he is scheduled to sing.
The Mexican-born tenor has a voice that is as pure and brilliant as gold. He tosses off complicated runs and cadenzas effortlessly, then hits high notes that are as clear and ringing as bells in a campanile and that leave his listeners breathless. If there were any doubters in Met audience that Camarena is on his way to being the next tenor superstar, his second act aria "Si, ritrovarla io guiro" should have erased them.
DiDonato is a natural Rossini soprano, attractive and with a lovely lilting voice that is full of longing, especially in the aria "Una volta c'era un re," and that is also capable of soaring to great heights, as in the finale "Nacqui all'affanno." She has an amazing vocal agility that make all the trills natural and graceful, and she and Camarena create exciting chemistry onstage together.
And in a winning Met debut, the excellent Italian baritone Pietro Spagnoli sang with grand authority in a commanding voice as the Prince's servant Dandini. Fabio Luisi conducted at a lively tempo and fairly galloped the Met orchestra through the overture. It was, in short, a fairy tale night at the opera.
Rossini wrote La Cenerentola in a month and the opera had its premiere in Rome in January 1817, not quite two years after The Barber of Seville opened there in a different theater. Neither opera was an immediate success, though both grew in popularity and became mainstays of the repertory, Barber of course being one of the most popular operas of all time.
In fact, there are several echoes of Barber in La Cenerentola. There is, for example, an ensemble of "Cenerentola, here; Cenerentola there" that is reminiscent of Figaro's "Largo al factotum" in Barber. And there is a "zitti, zitti; piano, piano" passage in both operas. One of the joys of Rossini are the ensembles and La Cenerentola has quartets, quintets, sextets, even septets, incorporating repetitive phrases in fast tempos that crescendo and are as spirited as any in opera.
The main story line of La Cenerentola is pretty much the Cinderella story every child knows. Rossini, however, made some changes to make it more personal and whimsical. For starters, Cinderella has a name, Angelina, and her mean stepmother is now a mean stepfather, Don Magnifico. Her stepsisters are Clorinda and Tisbe, and are about as vain and silly as any stepsisters can be.
Even Prince Charming has a name, Ramiro, and the fairy godmother becomes Alidoro, a wise tutor to Ramiro who also sprouts wings at one point and performs some other angelic tasks, including escorting Angelina the Prince's ball. To spice up the plot and provide for some mistaken-identity humor, Ramiro changes places with his valet, Dandini, so he can witness in the guise of a servant the behavior of Don Magnifico's daughters.
The Met production, which dates to 1997, is a box set that begins in a run-down drawing room at Don Magnifico's house with cracks in the walls and the mirrors and his two daughters lounging about in hair curlers, one on a broken sofa, while Angelina polishes some shoes, though the glass slippers of the fairy tale have been changed to a bracelet.
The current staging, which will be simulcast as part of the Met's Live in HD series on May 10, with Florez scheduled back in the role of Ramiro, also boasts a fine supporting cast. The Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli is wonderfully pompous as Don Magnifico, and the Venezuelan bass Luca Pisaroni is stoically otherworldly as Alidoro. Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Risley are convincingly and amusingly grasping as Clorinda and Tisbe.