The Enduring Allure of ‘Cinderella’ on the Lyric Opera Stage: Review

Teresa Castillo as Clorinda, Joshua Hopkins as Dandini, and Sophia Maekawa as Tisbe in “Cinderella” at the Lyric Opera House. (Michael Brosilow) Teresa Castillo as Clorinda, Joshua Hopkins as Dandini, and Sophia Maekawa as Tisbe in “Cinderella” at the Lyric Opera House. (Michael Brosilow)

There is something about the Cinderella story that never fails to delight. And it might just be that those with a good heart and a true understanding of love will invariably triumph over those who are greedy and hungry for social superiority.

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Although the roots of the story can be traced as far back as ancient Greece, it is “Cendrillon,” the fairy tale spun by the French writer Charles Perrault in 1697, that has endured for centuries. And over the years it has inspired countless interpretations, whether in the form of a play, a musical, a ballet, a movie, a cartoon, and of course best of all, as the opera widely known as “Cinderella” (but more accurately called “La Cenerentola,” which is Italian for “a girl mistreated and made to perform humble tasks”).

With its irresistible score composed by Gioachino Rossini in 1817 and a libretto by Jacobo Ferretti, the opera is at once heartfelt and comical. And there is something particularly winning about Lyric Opera’s current beguiling production that was originally directed, as well as winningly designed, by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle in the 1960s (he died in 1988) and has been ideally reconstructed by revival director Gregory A. Fortner.

Not only does this opera create an ideal balance between zany social satire and genuine romance, but its seven leading characters, along with an excellent male chorus, ideally capture the musical beauty of the work while also displaying exceptional acting skills and great comic flair. (Cheers for Yi-Chen Lin, the superb conductor.)

Playing the title role of Angelina (the mistreated girl of the title who we know as Cinderella) is Vasilisa Berzhanskaya, the Russian mezzo-soprano making an impressive Lyric debut. She winningly captures the isolation she feels as she must serve as a maid to her two quite different but intensely selfish stepsisters, both of whom are hoping to find a royal husband. Playing Clorinda, the older and more comically brash of the two, is Costa Rican soprano Teresa Castillo. Mezzo-soprano Sophia Maekawa (from Japan, and in her first year with the Ryan Opera Center) plays Tisbe, the somewhat more restrained, but also status-seeking younger sister. It is the sisters’ comically crude and financially strapped father, Don Magnifico (superbly played by baritone Alessandro Coronelli), who often steals the show with his genuine flair for physical comedy. (Just wait until you see him trying to sit in a chair that is mostly not there.)

The company of “Cinderella” at the Lyric Opera House. (Michael Brosilow)The company of “Cinderella” at the Lyric Opera House. (Michael Brosilow)

Ramiro, the handsome, understated young prince in pursuit of a bride, is winningly played by tenor Jack Swanson. He initially arrives in the guise of a servant so that he can take a preliminary look at the two stepsisters. And while he clearly is turned off by them, he and Angelina are immediately drawn to each other.

Soon, in the story’s quintessential comic twist, it is Ramiro’s real valet, Dandini (in an ideal turn by baritone Joshua Hopkins), who takes the two sisters to the royal ball. And once they are out of the house, the prince’s sincere and savvy tutor, Alidoro (warmly played by bass-baritone Nicholas Newton), tells Cenerentola (Cinderella) that he will take her to the ball. And when she arrives there — the essence of quiet elegance and beauty, but of course bearing the demeanor of Cinderella ­— Act I comes to an end.

Not surprisingly, Act II begins with an elaborate feast at the palace. (Cheers for Ponnelle’s stunning, richly outfitted, stage-enveloping table loaded with food and flowers.) Ultimately there are the revelations about just who is who. And, of course, there is the inevitable royal marriage to the prince that renders Cinderella a true princess. What’s more, being the lovely and grateful person that she is, Cinderella forgives and forgets her brash and selfish stepsisters and their father.

Lush, lavish and alternately zany and heartbreaking, this familiar story is both musically and dramatically top-notch. And best of all it feels wonderfully fresh.

“Cinderella” runs through Feb. 10 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive. For tickets, visit lyricopera.org or phone 312-827-5600.

Note: Next up at the Lyric will be “Champion” (Jan. 27-Feb. 11), the “opera in jazz” by Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer based on the true (and tragic) story of welterweight boxer Emile Griffith.

Follow Hedy Weiss on Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic


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