As the warm applause greeted the curtain of the Atlanta Opera’s season opening production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola this Friday, November 8th, glittery confetti showered on Angelina as she unfurled the final phrases of her celebrated aria (and arguably the only number keeping the opera active in the repertoire) “Non piu mesta”. Mixed with the acclaim and the sincere the delight of many was the inescapable memory of my first time attempt at making pasta sauce from scratch. I recall getting the finest ingredients my meager salary could secure, and the great care with which I managed the ratios between homemade tomato paste, garlic and herbs, graced by the required dramatic finger flicker of salt and pepper. Efforts notwithstanding, I recall my palate’s cruel assertion that I thoroughly missed the elusive alchemy that marries worthy elements into the desired result, leaving me to taste the ripe but uninfluenced tomato, the stand alone furry oregano, all made further insipid by the heavy handed interpolation of a very blunt dose of black pepper. The thing tasted like nothing at all, and a similar conclusion sunk in my heart as I tried to sum up the evening while patiently waiting to exit the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center parking lot. Looking for a culprit in situations like these makes for an uncomfortable task. Opera is a tough gamble, and those involved in it are often drawn to it by significant love. Artists and companies invest extensive amounts of time and effort to tackle often impossible music, be measured up against exhaustive standards and hope to offer their best to the public. Those who witness the effort, even opera critics, would rather describe a party rather than prepare an autopsy report, but alas, here we are.
Based on last night’s presentation, those in charge of both the musical and stage direction would receive subpoenas to this inquiry. The production concept by Joan Font is a co-production by Houston Grand Opera Association, Welsh National Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu and Grand Theatre de Geneve. In his director’s notes, he refers to Perrault’s original and envisions the opera as a fantastical dream summoned by the heroine to escape her daily struggles. His sets have a definite grotesque artificiality that often recall a decadent Alice in Wonderland aesthetic, and foster an unfocused reality. Some of his devices, such as the shadow puppet stunt unveiled during the storm music sequence, and the use of neon lighting to underline this uneasy, fabricated world, are inspired and endearing. Past these deep concepts, the basic premise on the page is a comedy, and Rossini’s humor is replete with slapstick and often proves notoriously corny and difficult to convince in modern times. The daunting challenge to make the stage business echo the comedic hints in the music, a task that the zany Don Magnifico of Dale Travis milked at every opportunity, may have prompted Mr. Font to add extraneous elements to carry the brunt of the task. A distracting corps de ballet in the shape of supernumeraries dressed up as mice becomes a constant burden to the production, milking laughs from the audience who, if must be pointed, rarely tired of their insufferable antics.These were easy laughs, but had little to do with Rossini and betrayed a basic distrust in the subject matter. Suffice it to say, these concerns took a back seat as it became clear that it was the music (not just the jokes) that was not landing.
Next on the stand, Maestro Dean Williamson, who makes his Atlanta Opera debut with these performances, has a lot to answer for. At the outset, his take on the overture was tidy and his baton proved capable of summoning a fine crescendo, but his phrasing was square and uninspired. As the evening unrolled, his direction was prone to let the woodwinds run amuck, and his tempi would become inconsistent and erratic, often unsympathetic to the needs of both singers and the audience alike. More troubling, in many of the opera’s complicated ensembles he failed to keep the principals in a functional line. While it may be true that the acoustics of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center seemed unwilling to cooperate with his task, many of us remember conductor Gregory Vadja execution of the same opera in the very same hall eleven years ago, and he filled the hall with sound without creating complicating barriers for his principals. In his defense, maestro Williamson’s cast is of a decidedly slimmer vocal profile than the one previously featured by the Atlanta Opera back in 2008, and in live performance practice, there is no bell curve in opera. The Rossinian orchestra is the same regardless of the size of venue, and small voices often struggle to survive his noisy wall of sound. Rossini’s musical tapestry, so dependent on the participation of a strong and luxurious vocal line, will suffer a lethal blow when exposed to these conditions.
Atlanta is no stranger to the work of mezzo soprano Emily Fons, who back in 2014 made her debut as Siebel in the company’s production of Gounod’s Faust. At the time, we were impressed with the singer’s easy and youthful disposition, her lightly colored mezzo a near ideal to the ingenue trouser parts in the French repertoire. Between that favorable debut and now, she has earned a flurry of superlatives as a singing actress. Thus, it proved a bit disappointing that she seemed merely content with marking through the basic ingenue paces of her part without going further, but perhaps her focus was shifted to the more pressing aspects of her assignment. Angelina, a part reserved for that very rare of creatures, the Rossini contralto, tests her talents with greater scrutiny, and the results are less agreeable. The basic condition of her instrument has not changed from that first hearing five years ago, but her current part allows us the opportunity for further description.
Her voice is what is normally referred to nowadays as a lyric mezzo-soprano, with a well established middle register of light density and remarkable flexibility. The extension to the high tessitura is achieved by lightening the weight of her instrument and disconnecting it from its core, while the lower voice is made to function through clever placement rather than sheer endowment. This in itself is problematic, because the voice does not have the required profile to cut through the cacophony and fill the hall in an authoritative way, and an evident void fills the bottom part of all her otherwise well executed passagework. Its timbre is a mixture of rosey and pale shades, attractive qualities which could better promote her case if a more incisive approach would allow the greater audience to hear it. Her overall singing is timid, a tendency that keeps her sound trapped behind the maestro’s orchestral wall and robs the audience the opportunity to enjoy her talents in full. In too many stretches of concerted passages, it seemed as if she were singing to herself. This tendency all but evaporated when the singer was called upon to close the evening with the opera’s keynote aria, which she lavished with previously unheard enthusiasm and vigour, raising the obvious questions as to the pacing of her resources, and how she may better distribute them in the future. Audiences should not have to wait over two hours to finally hear the prima donna put her back into it.
Her romantic interest, tenor Santiago Ballerini, offered a more complicated case. This is a young singer who has captivated our attention, for all the wrong reasons, since his fairy tale triumph back in 2017, when he replaced an ailing colleague as Ernesto in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. An artist of curiously disparate qualities, Mr. Ballerini’s diminutive instrument (he indeed paints with the smallest and softest brush in the cast) should be the very thing that disqualifies him, but it is simultaneously its most compelling quality. In terms of color and modulation, it is a tiny precious gem of a thing, which its master wields with full confidence in its ability to delight by its timbre alone. He has the type of voice exceptions are made for, and under the right circumstances can grace a score beyond his scope with his special brand of magic. Regrettably, under the conditions laid out in this production, he is miscast in the role of prince Don Ramiro. Similar to the case of Ms. Fons, his instrument dissipates quickly once it crosses the footlights, and its charm is checked when not allowed to establish itself in unadorned, straight phrases. The scene most apt to provide him this ideal environment, his introductory duet “Un soave non so che”, was hijacked by maestro Williamson who favored an overtly ornate treatment of just about every other line in the score. Composers of this period, like their classic counterparts, believed in the contrast between tension and relaxation (cavatina and cabaletta,) and the maestro’s contrary treatment underlined the wisdom of this practice, much to the sad detriment of Mr. Ballerini’s efforts. His florid singing is well executed, but hardly the feature which sets him apart from the rest of the cast. Perhaps in order to assert himself, Mr. Ballerini made use of a grittier connection between his middle and upper notes during his act II scena “Si trovarla io giuro”, a technique we hope he continues to perfect as it abandoned him badly when attacking the aria’s climactic high C’s in mixed falsetto. We continue to consider Mr. Ballerini a very special talent, and hope to hear him under better conditions in the near future.
Serving further evidence of the essentials missing from the leading lovers, the supporting cast distinguished itself for possessing far greater vocal fortitude. The sister duo of Bryn Holdsworth and Elizabeth Sarian as Clorinda and Tisbe, while possessing voices of standard lyric profiles, projected their retorts with an incisive edge, and through their powers combined never failed Rossini’s musical tapestry. The remaining players provided a showdown of baritones, and they did their ilk proud, with the scene stealing Dale Travis taking the evening’s top honors. Comparing these performance with our first hearing of his Don Magnifico thirteen years ago, his bass-baritone has lost a certain girth, but can still sneak past the orchestra through considerable skill. His stage business is decadent and ridiculous, but always an echo of cues implied in the score. On the opposite side of the generational spectrum, the Atlanta Opera scored a very public win in its casting of baritone Thomas Glass, who fresh from winning the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council Auditions Grand Finals Concert back in March, is officially one of the country’s top ranked operatic rookies of today. With important principal debuts at Houston Grand Opera and Des Moines Metro Opera, this season marks the exciting beginnings of a career of great promise for Mr. Glass, and though his talents were incongruous with the comic part of Dandini, we were grateful to witness the new star in all his youthful prowess. Vocally, there is much to admire: his baritone is steady in projection, and though its color has not yet mellowed, it can be called to serve a number of lyric assignments while study, nature and luck do their part to encourage his steady development. In the inescapable florid music, his passagework was labored and clumsy, an affair further aggravated by the leadership at the pit. Dramatically, though he projected natural comedic verve, he was bettered by the antics of his seasoned bass baritone counterpart. Is there anything more awkward than two buffoons at the same party? For his part, bass-baritone Alan Higgs added a well sung Alidoro to his growing repertoire list.
The Atlanta Opera next tackles Richard Strauss’ masterpiece Salome, not heard in Atlanta since 2003. For more information, please visit the company’s page at www.atlantaopera.org