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In Review > North America

La Cenerentola

Merola Opera Program

IN REVIEW MEROLA Cenerentola lg 1117
Anthony Ciaramitaro, Christian Pursell and Samantha Hankey in Merola’s Cenerentola
© Kristen Loken

NO SEXAGENARIAN ever looked or sounded more youthful than the Merola Opera Program did on August 5, when it offered the second of two fully staged performances of Rossini’s Cenerentola at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music Concert Hall. The sixty-year-old program adhered to musical and theatrical standards that should be the envy of opera-training regimens everywhere. In another of the miracles the program conjures annually, Merola recruited from this summer’s participants a satisfying cast for this wise, frothy and humane dramma giocoso

Audiences come to Merola in hope of discovering in these young “Merolini” the vocal headliners of the next generation. The “I heard X way back when” is an aural sport San Franciscans play every summer, and with its seven major singing roles and small male chorus, this Cenerentola provided much opportunity for speculation. But beyond individual contributions, Rossini created a masterpiece demanding lofty musical and dramatic ensemble values from all. Much credit should go to conductor Mark Morash, who led his thirty-seven players with enviable verve, detail and respect for his singers. Morash shaped the ensembles, especially the great Act II sextet, with clockwork precision. Fortepianists Tuomas Juutilainen and James Maverick etched witty commentaries on the recitatives.

The venue presents staging challenges. Morash conducted from the auditorium floor, while the conventional wingless platform stage was converted by designer Donald Eastman into a storybook world. A shift of the furniture pieces took us from Don Magnifico’s crumbling villa to Prince Ramiro’s palace. A long stairway and a balcony adorned with cutout trees offered playing areas imaginatively used by director Chuck Hudson, who directed traffic with fleet assurance, as choristers romped on multiple levels and principals took on the task of changing the sets.

Some of the characterizations exuded great charm. Casting fairy godfather Alidoro as a kind of magus out of Disney made the figure more interesting than usual. Stressing the extreme physical contrast between Ramiro and valet Dandini added up to good fun. Imbuing Angelina with a melancholic air, even after her visit to the ball, made dramatic sense. But Hudson transformed sentimental comedy into vulgarity by pushing wicked stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe and patriarch Don Magnifico into the realm of outrageous farce. The siblings’ destruction of Ramiro’s banquet suggested a scene out of a Luis Buñuel movie, and it seemed removed from the sensibilities of Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferretti. Christine Crook’s costumes for the sisters (in shades of green, fuchsia and gold, with plenty of flounces) were wonderfully hideous. Angelina’s red ball-gown was stunning.

Merola scored a triumph by casting Samantha Hankey, a light coloratura mezzo whose temperament and technique seemed ideal for Angelina, the Cinderella figure whose goodness radiates through the opera. Hankey’s voice is lushly distinctive in the lower register and, as the finale confirmed, fluent and expansive in coloratura forays. Her Prince Charming was Anthony Ciaramitaro, whose light tenor rose to expressive heights in his thrusting traversal of “Sì, ritrovarla io giuro.” Ciaramitaro shared a flair for comedy with his Dandini, the dashing Californian baritone Christian Pursell. Bass Szymon Wach delivered a light-voiced Alidoro. Magnifico fell to Andrew Hiers, a Floridian bass-baritone who mugged his way through the part. The sisters—soprano Natalie Image (Clorinda) and mezzo Edith Grossman (Tisbe)—occasionally pushed their voices beyond what the hall’s acoustics could tolerate. —Allan Ulrich 

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