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Seen and Heard Opera Review

Gioachino ROSSINI, La Cenerentola, Performance at the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, March 9th 2005 (RJF)



Mark Bell (left) Don Magnifico, Domenica Matthews, Angelina / Cenerentola,
Daniel Chadwick (second right) Dandini, Christopher Turner (right) Don Ramiro.

It is some years since the RNCM presented a Rossini opera for their spring season. I looked back at my notes of their 1984 Il barbiere di Siviglia that featured Barry Banks as Almaviva. I had been impressed by his Tamino in Die Zauberflöte two years earlier in a production that also featured Jane Eaglen as one of The Ladies, Joan Rodgers as Pamina and Linda Kitchen as Papagena; a distinguished list of alumni who, like Banks, have gone on to grace the boards of many of the world’s great opera houses. Banks’ facility in the florid singing, and high tessitura that is the hallmark of Rossini’s writing for the tenor voice, provided him with a firm foundation for his significant stage career and despite his small stature. Tenors who can sing Rossini tend, with the odd notable North American exception, to be at least slender. Christopher Turner, here singing Don Ramiro, the prince seeking a bride, is over six feet in height and well built. His is a true light lyric tenor voice with heft and metal allied to flexibility. At age only 22 he has already won two of the College’s major vocal competitions. His singing was easy, fluent and assured. He is not yet the finished article vocally or histrionically; his runs could have been sharper, whilst his acting was a bit stiff. If he takes full advantage of the vocal tuition for which the College is renowned, and resists the stupid offers that are so frequently put in front of tenors, he will become a welcome addition to singers of his register in this repertoire and proceed to enjoy a considerable professional career.

Dominica Matthews sang the eponymous heroine. With significant, appalling scheduling on the part of the College she had, together with two other members of the cast, competed for the ‘Elisabeth Harwood Award’ the evening before. Miss Matthews sang five items in that competition including one of the most beautiful and expressive ‘Mon Coeur s’ouvre a ta voix’ from Samson and Dalila that I have heard in the theatre, in recital or on record, for a long time. Most importantly, her diction matched her vocal skills. The prize of £5000 is open to students at the end of their time at RNCM. Having concluded her five items with an incisive ‘Parto, parto,’ from Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, Dominica Matthews won the prize hands down for the quality of her singing and her palpable communication with the audience. The maturity of her singing, the wide range of her voice together with its even tonal purity expressiveness and legato, overwhelmed me. However, knowing Rossini’s Cenerentola, I did worry that the vocal and emotional demands of the competition would impact on her performance 24 hours later. In fact her vocal command of the rondo finale of the opera was as vocally secure as her more gentle musings of ‘Una volta c’era un re’ at the start. The opera is not merely about Cenerentola’s physical transformation from kind-hearted scullery maid to regal woman. She also grows for a naïve girl into a benevolent woman. Dominica Matthews achieved both transformations via both her singing and acting. Her voice, as I have indicated, has a wide range. It extends from a contralto’s richness into high coloratura. Given that range and vocal flexibility, I can think of several roles from Rossini’s Naples operas that she could already sing with distinction. Hers is one of the best well schooled operatic voices to have emerged from the RNCM in recent years. Her performance was a credit to herself and her teachers. I shall watch her career with interest and hope it is not only pursued in her native Australia.

The School of Opera and Vocal Studies at the RNCM prepares students in acting and movement as well as singing. All these skills were well implemented by both the Clorinda of Gillian Ramm and Tisbe of Susan Boyd. They both exhibited good comic gifts although this did extend to rather more running and falling than we are used to. Also excellently conveyed was the foppishly played Dandini of Daniel Chadwick. His flexible well covered bass has sap in it and he could develop into a significant buffo. His use of hands, face and stance, allied to a comedians sense of timing, was best seen as he revealed his true identity to Don Magnifico in the duet ‘Un segreto d’importanza.’ Mark Bell was less successful in his portrayal of Don Magnifico, the neglectful, inebriate father of Cenerentola. His young well tuned, but lean, bass was just that, too young. Despite his whiskers, he sang and moved more like a 25 year old brother than a dissolute father. Jonathan Pugsley, another who had competed the night before, sang Alidoro. His voice is strong and resonant but with odd raw patches in the tone. His portrayal of Romiro’s tutor was a little stark, lacking the avuncular benevolent touch.

Apart from some over strident brass at the start of the overture, Enrique Mazzola conducted with a sure feel for the idiom whilst giving support to his young singers and keeping the story moving along. The orchestral playing was very good indeed and if I commend the wind section in particular there is no implied criticism of standards elsewhere. The sets were realistic and evocative. Their easy and smooth movement between scenes greatly helped the cohesion and smooth flow of the whole work which I have seen lost elsewhere in over elaboration. The photographs projected onto a false proscenium during the overture were an effective introduction. I take it they represented the childhood of Cenerentola and her sisters and seemed to be late Victorian. If the costumes were more 1920s with Clorinda and Tisbe as feathered flappers it was no great discontinuity and suited the arrival of a period open topped car to take Cenerentola to the ball. Stefan Janski’s production was full of typical deft touches that helped the singers reinforce their feel for what they were singing and expressing. More than many producer directors he understands the needs of singers and how and where they need to stand as soloists and in ensembles and which were particularly well managed. I could have done without the overdone business as Don Magnifico and his ‘sommeliers’ overdid the drinking; too much like a student romp and not enough like Rossini whose music lives in vibrancy without such cavorting and extraneous vocalism.

This production and performance provided an ideal showcase for the singers and highly enjoyable entertainment for the audience, who were justifiably enthusiastic. There are further performances on March 13th. 16th, 19th and 22nd at 7.15pm. If you are within travelling distance of Manchester I strongly recommend you book soon.

Robert J Farr

Photo: Jon Super © RNCM 2005

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)