La Cenerentola at Opera in the Heights Proves Rossini Could Do More Than Just Barber

The setup:
Librettist Ferretti removed the magical elements from the tale of Cinderella, La Cenerentola, to allow opera composer Gioachino Rossini to soften his opera buffa, but there's more than enough fairy dust to go around. Opera in the Heights literally sparkles with it, and its gem-like production of this 1817 Italian comic coloratura classic radiates its own type of magic in staging and, most impressive, singing.

The execution:
This is the intimate company at its most beguiling in seasons. It is witty and bright, casting a spell that befits Rossini's distinct marvels in melody and texture. If the fairy tale is simplified – no godmother with wand, no pumpkin coach, no mice horsemen, not even a glass slipper – the age-old story is made anew in sweetness, goodness, forgiveness and charity.

Tongue-twisting patter songs, lightning flashes of scales and breathless vocal control, ardent love declamations, and daffy situations with a universal happy ending make this opera unique in the rep, and one of the most demanding to pull off without veering into cartoon. OH overlays the stylish opera with stylized silliness in keeping with the stupid and vain stepdaughters, Clorinda and Tisbe (soprano Kyla Knox and mezzo Monica Isomura, both scene-stealers deluxe), their pompous father out for money (bass Nathan Milholin, a true Rossinian comic actor with gleeful glint in his eye), and the 11-member male chorus, who act as the Prince's retinue when not changing scenery or dusting up the place before he arrives.

The candy-colored storybook sets by Jodi Brobrovsky and the couture-gone-mad costumes by Macy Lyne, abetted by Jim Elliott's warm lighting, bring to this tale a timeless comedy grace, swathed in director David Ward's silky touches that are both right and funny. A large hassock gets quite a workout during the denouement, but there are deft little moments of stage bits throughout that deepen the comedy and gladden the heart. The candy box hearts at the conclusion are a special treat. Everything is aglow, and nothing is overdone.

But you can't put across Rossini with stagecraft alone. When asked why he didn't write any more operas, the famous composer, living an unparalleled lavish retired life in Paris, quipped, “They can't sing what I've already written!” OH certainly can. Maestro Eiki Isomura has assembled a young, nigh-perfect cast, amazingly assured in technique and can-do attitude. Tenor Eric Bowden, as the besotted Prince, tosses off his high tessitura, and many high Cs, without visible strain, which is high compliment when one is singing anything by Rossini; baritone Thom Gunther, as Dandini, the Prince's valet, who doubles for him when the Prince goes shopping incognito for a bride, warms up nicely in the court scene; and bass baritone Christopher Besch, as the Prince's tutor Alidoro, who doubles as quasi-godmother to Cinderella, rings out in chasm-deep tone and lively stage presence. Knox and Isomura are perfectly gauche, except when singing, when they are angels; and Mr. Milholin is a true star-in-the-making as a Rossini specialist. He's certainly got the character of Don Magnifico down to a science. He's a delight to watch as much as to hear.

Ahh, but what's a Cenerentola without a Cinderella? A revelation two seasons ago at OH as a feisty Hansel in Humperdinck's Wagnerian Hansel and Gretel, who knew Megan Berti could conquer – and triumph – in the dazzling fireworks of Rossini? She exudes that fairy dust I mentioned earlier; she glistens with it, tosses it in the air and envelops us. She holds us spellbound with flawless technique, perfect diction, absolute pitch and fearless attack. Even in her drab scullery uniform, she's an eyeful. Wearing haute couture at the ball, she's a knockout. What a diva! And I mean that in all sincerity. She knocks this role out of the park. After she meets the prince in disguise, she explodes in fiery roulades and filigree, each one more precise, each more ornamented. Her heart's aflame, and she sounds it, happy in love, ecstatic in joy. So are we, pulled warmly into her vocal embrace. This is a defining performance. (This March Berti appears in the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd's Prince of Players at Houston Grand Opera. I pray they have given her a showstopping role. It's what she deserves. If not, this consummate artist will make it so.)

The verdict:

La Cenerentola was one of Rossini's biggest hits, beloved even after Barber of Seville stunned the world. But opera changed, coloratura got the boot, and the earthy, thicker dramas of Verdi and Wagner replaced stratospheric old-fashioned buffa. This old girl from the early 19th century's still got it, though. She's retro and fun, smart and sexy, the life of the party. OH sees to that.

La Cenerentola continues February 11 and 13 at Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Boulevard. For more information, call 713-861-5303 or visit operaintheheights,org. $14-$67.

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover