La Cenerentola in Basel

La Cenerentola is unquestionably my favourite Rossini opera. The music is exhilarating, the ensembles brilliantly devised between the different voices and the witty libretto not eclipsing a certain sentimental poignancy. I have never seen an unconventional staging of the piece and have to admit that for the first twenty minutes or so of the performance at Basel I was disconcerted by Antonio Latella’s production. This was not so much because the action took place on a stage bare apart from some chairs and a weird construction resembling palm trees. Nor that the characters, in an odd assortment of modern dress, adopted exaggerated movements and groupings. It was rather that all, including the male chorus, had strapped to their bodies large, unwieldy and ugly soft dolls. The reason was not immediately apparent. Did they represent a sort of alter ego? Or a fantasy façade behind which true feelings were hidden?

Perhaps the latter, because as the evening progressed, the dolls were increasingly abandoned by the protagonists. And my involvement in the proceedings correspondingly grew and grew; so much so, that by the end I felt that I had shared in a penetrating exploration of how human beings function. Not just a simple victory of good over bad, innocence over worldliness, simplicity over luxury, freedom over social constraint but a struggle in which desirable outcomes are not necessarily achieved. Alindoro’s carefully thought-through scheme to those ends is only partially successful as even he is thwarted by human peccadillos.  Don Magnifico and the step-sisters resist Angelica’s attempts at reconciliation and while Don Ramiro appears to be content with her as bride, it is at some cost, notably to his – in this production – loving relationship with his sidekick Dandini.

What we were given was indeed an insight into the complexity of human relationships for which Rossini’s score, with its witty interchanges, passionate outbursts, and irritable patter turned out to be admirably suited. None of this, however, would have worked so well if it had not been undertaken by a superb bunch of soloists who were alert to every change in mood and infused communications with a sharpness of interpretive awareness, all the time singing with a mastery of Rossinian phrasing and rhythmic vitality. Vasilisa Berzhanskaya was a forthright Angelina, attentive to the ornamentation and smoothly shifting from agilely emitted high notes to her rich chest voice. Juan José de León as Ramiro and Vittorio Prato as Dandini made so much dramatically of their relationship that there was a danger of overlooking how well each of them sung. Andrew Murphy was a suitably truculent Magnifico adroit both in the buffo patter and in the facial and bodily movements to accompany it. The cavernous bass voice of Tassos Apostolou boomed reassuringly as he oversaw events moving in the right direction but took on an unexpected harder edge as they developed beyond his control. Sarah Brady and Ludovica Bello as the two perky step-sisters completed the outstanding cast. Conductor Simone Di Felice’s dramatic interpretation of the score ensured that the complex interplay of the characters and their emotions was fully realised in musical terms.