Sunday, May 10, 2009

Cinderella needs to get out of the fireplace

Vocally and musically, the singing on Saturday afternoon was really first rate and often exquisite. Aside from the Latvian mezzo-soprano who could do no wrong, Elina Garanca in the title role, I was formally introduced to a major rising star that I knew by name only, African-American tenor Lawrence Brownlee as Prince Charming.

And I'll give the conductor Maurizio Benini a B+ only because at times, the action just seemed to stop for yet another requisite show-off aria, although most of the time, the opera bounced right along in the crucial vocal ensembles. Benini even upshifted to turbo as if daring the vocal ensemble to keep on track (they did, mostly).

I tremendously enjoyed the supporting actors and the irony they presented. Baritone and comic actor Alessandro Corbelli was a rascal, a bully and even a sympathetic figure at times as the idiot Stepfather, Don Magnifico -- Rossini's answer to the hateful Stepmother. And instead of a Fairy Godmother, Rossini offers us the equally sympatethic Alidoro, Cinderella's guardian angel, sung in an angelic bass by the young, newly named Beverly Sills Award Winner, John Relyea.

The ever-cavorting ugly stepsisters sang well, that is, if you noticed their singing over the shenanigans that began well enough, but grew more tiresome as the three hours wore on. Far better as a comedian was bass-baritone Simone Alberghini as Dandini, the valet-in-prince's-clothing.

But compared to other Met productions, Caesare Lievi's 1997 design dates itself for its limited compatibility with what HD film/television has to offer. There seemed to be far fewer cameras, and those were focused front-on. In the finite, box-y set -- very much like looking into the fireplace by way of the front grate only -- we got lots of close-ups. There were also views of several backstage scenery changes, but little else. In effect, we saw mostly what the Lincoln Center audience saw as opposed to productions that have captured side angles and views from different perspectives. HD movie-goers got little of that being-in-the-center-of-the-action feel.

I'm sure that my disappointment lies in part from realization that this season-ending Saturday matinee of Cenerentola is the one and only HD satellite production, out of the Met's 11 this season, that I've managed to see. So I was pretty well starved for stimulation by the time I took my seat at Royal Palm Beach's Regal 18.

So with Cenerentola's rather "flat" set and costumes -- bare, plain, minimalist even -- and the prominent lack of great detail, even the close-ups had limited effect. Compared to the wealth of stage and costume ornamentation in, say, "I Puritani" last season, the visuals were a let-down.

That seems like quite an oxymoron considering that Cinderella is a fairytale, and the over-embroidered Disney version has surely affected my mental image. Nor did the designers go with another obvious choice: plain and simple for her "lean" days, ornate and fanciful after the transformation (the ball, the wedding).

But in this new artform called Live HD Opera, perhaps there are other artists to consider, like the cinematographer who must interpolate an older production into newer techniques, showing off its strengths, not its limitations. And does s/he play well with others, like the lighting designer? The most obvious example of a mismatch was revealed in Cinderella's all-important ballgown. I've seen better still photos after the fact, images that offered richer, more intriguing details, than I could catch during the broadcast.

And what of that little ol' decision-maker -- finances? As the Met's season closer, how much money was left in the budget to address which priorities? Maybe the just-shut-up-and-enjoy-whatever-you-can-get rule applies here.

Famed baritone Thomas Hampson was the backstage host -- we've all seen him do better. He was stiff, mixing up the names of the singers in front of him, even narrowly missing a flub of Angela Gheorghiu's last name. He didn't rise to the ever-so-engaging speaker he is during interviews or when talking from stage to an audience about his solo program.

So my final verdict is divided for Cinderella:

Vocal: A+
Orchestral: B+
Visuals: C-