Minnesota Opera is on a roll these days. For its season-opener in September, the company offered a thoughtful, evocative retelling of Gluck’s “Orpheus and Eurydice” and has followed that up this weekend with a lighthearted, elegant production of Rossini’s “La Cenerentola,” otherwise known as “Cinderella.”
The production, which plays through next weekend at the Ordway Center, boasts in the title role the American stage debut of Romanian mezzo-soprano Roxana Constantinescu, whose winning, sympathetic portrayal of the “maid of ashes” was enhanced by singing that was as refined as it was expressive, all suggesting that this is a major operatic star in the making.
No less responsible for the success of the evening was the staging by Doug Varone. Watching the show, with its natural but buoyant sense of flow and movement, no one would be surprised to learn that Varone comes from the world of dance. The characters on opening night seemed to be visual embodiments of Rossini’s sparkling score. And where most directors can’t resist infusing “Cenerentola” with low-down slapstick, Varone’s staging was full of surprises and witty, light-as-air touches that managed to take the familiar story seriously while allowing ample opportunity for laughs. For instance, he has the male chorus decked out in top hat, white tie and tails, looking as if they had just stepped out of a 1920s Broadway musical revue. They do a dance with Cinderella during fairy-godfather Alidoro’s first-act aria, thereby giving life to what is usually one of the opera’s more tedious numbers, and in an especially clever bit of staging they turn into galloping horses during the storm scene.
As a final gag — spoiler’s alert — he has our Prince pick up Cinderella’s lost slipper and return it to her as she takes her place at her new throne. This is Varone’s wink of acknowledgement that Rossini’s libretto (by Jacopo Ferretti) dispenses with many of the revered inventions of the Disney “Cinderella”: singing mice, glass slippers and pumpkins turned into coaches.
The handsome production, with sets by Erhard Rom — five large decorated panels that rise and drop to the stage floor — is being called a “re-imagining” of a production that originated as a collaboration between Kentucky Opera and Washington Opera. James Schuette designed bright costumes and Jane Cox created the atmospheric lighting scheme.
Varone’s cast was excellent, starting with Canadian tenor John Tessier’s ardent, handsome Prince. Tessier’s light, agile voice — what was once called a tenorino — with its effortless top register, was the perfect sound for this role. The stepsisters, two roles so often over-done, were simply funny in this instance, and smartly sung by Angela Mortellaro and Victoria Vargas. Andrew Wilkowske, a familiar voice to audiences here, made the most of his role as Dandini, the valet who portrays the Prince, and he sang with impressive resonance, as did Daniel Mobbs (Alidoro). And among the several impressive accomplishments of Donato DiStefano, our Don Magnifico, besides the richness of his tone, was his ability to convey a real sense of meanness lurking beneath his amiability — this especially in the scene where he tells the census-taker that his third daughter, Cinderella, is dead, as she stands by, listening.
Constantinescu sang throughout with refined accuracy and a notably sonorous — almost contralto-like — lower register. She seemed to tire a bit in her final scenes. It’s a taxing role. Beyond doubt, her characterization was appealing. As with the best Cinderellas, we see her as a potential princess right from the start.
As for the orchestra, the musicians played beautifully Saturday night under the direction of Christopher Franklin, who easily captured Rossini’s special ebullience. The woodwind solos were especially well-shaped.
“Cenerentola” runs through Nov. 7 at the Ordway Center, 345 Washington St., St. Paul. Tickets: $20-$200. 612-333-6669 or online.