In terms of pure sonic quality, the word "Cenerentola" stands out even in the context of Italian, one of the most melodious languages. I used to insist on changing the name of Rossini's comic opera "La Cenerentola" to "Cinderella," but the English just doesn't cut it. Pronounced with a "Ch" at the beginning, it rolls off the tongue and has an infectious rhythm to it, an element Rossini uses time and again in his score.
The Pittsburgh Opera's production of the dramma giocoso Saturday night at the Benedum Center was every bit as irresistible, and not just because famed mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux had the title role (actually the character's name is Angelina). The production from Minnesota Opera and directed here by Kristine McIntyre had an old-fashioned, droll quality to it. She allowed the traditional bits that make this one of the most enjoyable operas to come through. That was highlighted by the ridiculous vanity of the Don Magnifico (Paolo Pecchioli) and his clumsy daughters Clorinda (Meredith Lustig) and Tisbe (Samantha Korbey) -- Rossini's versions of the stepmother and stepsisters.
But Ms. McIntyre also knew when to clear out the actors and let Mr. Pecchioli do his thing. A Pittsburgh Opera favorite, the bass has appeared so many times here he could be put on the Opera staff, except that they wouldn't get anything done. He is flat-out hilarious -- mawking, gawking, sneering, groveling, laughing and crying as the bumbling and despicable Magnifico who hopes to marry off one of his daughters to the prince, Don Ramiro (Arthur Espiritu). Mr. Pecchioli stole scenes with barely a glance at the audience, his hair unkept like a mad scientist, his expressions large like a cartoon character and his voice exaggerated like a caricature.
Whereas most singers and stage directors use the scene in which Magnifico is drunk as the newly named wine steward to be the most adventurous, Mr. Pecchioli was that way throughout. Things got downright hysterical when he asked the courtiers to take down his new "drinking law" in writing. He demanded they write his name in capital letters, and double-checked by looking up at the supertitles projecting the English translation above the stage. It was a startling and hilarious breaking of the fourth wall, and the supertitles obligated, changing to capitals.
I don't think Mr. Pecchioli overplayed it at all, because the saccharine romance between Angelina and Ramiro needs to be balanced by the savory buffoonery of her family. Ramiro's valet, Dandini (Daniel Mobbs) is a part of this, but in this production he was especially flamboyant, pretending to be his boss as part of a ruse to find out more about the daughters. The bass-baritone appeared in a bright-red overcoat and cane and channeled "Cabaret" with a polished voice and smirk.
Then there's the "serious" side, the budding love of Angelina and Ramiro. These characters have only their voices to count on to make a splash, and both did. What can you say about Ms. Genaux? How she captured Cenerentola's sunny disposition while managing the virtuosic runs is beyond me. How she maintained precision with her coloratura fluttering while still projecting is just as baffling. Whereas most singers need a big swing to project, Ms. Genaux sent her voice flying to the back of the huge hall with a bunt. There really are few in the business who can sing this way anymore. Yet she was not born with this technique; she works hard on it. If you sat close enough to the stage you would have seen how she contorts her jaw and lips to hit the notes in the scales and to vibrato. Each syllable is offered in a pre-determined manner to get the sound out while not interrupting the flow of the lines.
Much more typical was Mr. Espiritu. The former Pittsburgh Opera resident artist displayed a burnished, trumpeting sound when he had a longer phrase. His voice definitely has matured since he left the Pittsburgh Opera, and it held an attractive timbre. But he couldn't match that intensity and projection when singing shorter lines an ensemble work. He was fine at these moments, but just doesn't yet have the control that Ms. Genaux does. Well, few do.
I thought Meredith Lustig and Samantha Korbey captured the fumbling sisters well. In opera, falling off a log is hard because you are usually singing. There's a reason so many productions had vocalists "stand and sing." But this pair was able to keep to the score with light tone even as they were falling over, pushing each other and, in one particularly funny moment, strangling each other with a pink feather boa. Joseph Barron's character of the wise old Alidoro was the one misstep by Ms. McIntyre: he was portrayed too stiff and then too smug for my liking.
The male chorus of courtiers was outstanding. A credit to chorus master Mark Trawka, they sang with clarion tone even amid involved choreography.
The orchestra performance was spotty, with the best work done by conductor Antony Walker was directing the singers, something he does so well.
Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1750. First Published April 29, 2013 4:00 AM