Opera presents a unique challenge to a theater critic. With it’s own vocabulary and grammar; the standards of drama—coherent plot, psychology and basic logic—aren’t entirely relevant. The aristocrats of the 18th-century were looking for other things: virtuosity, ornamentation, elegance, picturesque charm and purity of feeling rather than complexity. And of course, a good strong moral. What can one say about Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola, a.k.a. Cinderella, then? That the characters are cardboard cutouts? That the plot makes bare sense in general and none at all in particulars? That the story moves at the stately pace of a riverboat chugging down the Mississippi? Oh, right—it’s opera. Better to look at it as the tribal art of the 1% at a time when women married to keep the power close at hand, because your family name determined your entire destiny.
Rossini himself did quite alright: the son of a minor official, he wrote La Cenerentola in a few weeks at age 25, wowed the crowned heads of Europe, wrote a ton more operas—including the Lone Ranger theme— and retired from the business at the age of 47 to concentrate on his love of fine cooking. And maybe this is the best way to think of Cinderella: as a gorgeous, marzipanned wedding cake, replete with decorative trilling arias and thick buttery quintets and sextets, designed for pleasure, not nutrition. On this count, Rossini did us no favors by redacting magic from the beloved fairy tale and axing its two best characters. The Fairy Godmother becomes a “wise counselor” (yawn), and the Wicked Stepmother becomes a stepfather who’s not so much wicked as silly and greedy, desperate to secure his fortune by marrying one of his daughters to royalty. Oh, and forget the glass slipper—it’s a pair of bracelets. It’s fair to say that the stage director has her work cut out for her.
In their current production of Cinderella, Skylight Music Theatre does everything in their power to engage and amuse us, while keeping the music rightly front and center. Recognizing that the whole concept is rather silly, they embrace silliness, updating the story to a mythical present day and making fashion the main theme. This lets Cinderella’s sisters become a pair of awful party girls in horrible leggings, chain-vaping and snapping selfies of their evening debauch, which we get to see in projection, instagram-style. Their home is piled with yesterday’s outfits; they sleep on great heaps of tacky garments. The wise counselor’s fabulous suit has a hint of magic, accented with rhinestones that glitter out to the balcony; a male chorus of palace flunkies stand in for the story’s mice, scampering around in gray suits. Best of all, the Prince’s ball becomes a fashion show, as guests arrive in a variety of outré costumes designed by “fashion icon” Cesar Gallindo, who was reportedly inspired by Truman Capote’s 1966 Black-and-White Ball. Cinderella’s signature gown is crowned by an amazing disk-like veil that transforms into a headress at a single flick.
Music director Viswa Subbaraman conducts his orchestra modestly in support of the singers, with whom even non-experts must be impressed. They are vocal athletes, their virtuosity married to artful interpretation; the showy group sections immerse the audience in intense walls of rich, complex sound created by rigorously-trained human instruments. Sishel Claverie brings natural grace and warmth to the role of Angelina/Cinderella. She really does convey the personification of goodness, and her diction brings out the English translation of the lyrics clearly. Dimitrie Lazich has fun with the part of the valet, who gets to pretend to be the Prince while his master seeks true love, and LaMarcus Miller gives preternatural Buddha-like serenity to the role of the councilor Alidoro, who seems to have something supernatural about him after all, as he can apparently call down thunderstorms on cue.
All told, the production is colorful, humorous, and musically rich. Unfortunately, Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik has made choices that continually muddy the action rather than clarify it. For instance, when Alidoro comes to the sister’s house disguised as a beggar, Cinderella offers him a snack, singing “Take it quick, don’t let them see you.” So what does Alidoro do? He sits down in the middle of the room, calmly sipping his coffee while the sisters lounge around, apparently oblivious to the street person in their bedroom. Or is it their living room? And why do they run around in their underwear anyway, bathrobes flapping open, even when the Prince’s heralds come into the house? Similarly, in the second act thunderstorm, dutiful Cinderella hands out umbrellas to her family—while they are indoors—and then fetches buckets to catch drops from the leaky roof. If she had done that first, or if the other characters had given any hint they were being leaked on, we would have not been confused as to why they needed umbrellas inside. Ponasik may think that since it’s a comedy, nothing needs to make sense, but the opposite is true: comedy comes from the violation of expectations, but the ground needs to be established first. Admittedly, the job isn’t easy, but some of the gags have a whiff of desperation: a prancing caterer juggling cocktails is amusing, but does little to enhance the significant action.
For members of the opera tribe, Cinderella is a bountiful musical feast that could easily be twice as long. For the uninitiated, its lapses in logic and three-hour running time somewhat dilute it’s pleasures.
La Cenerentola (Cinderella)
Music by Gioachino Rossini
Libretto by Jacopo Ferretti
English Translation by Amanda Holden
by Skylight Music Theatre
runs through October 5
158 N Broadway