Two stellar debuts spark Lyric’s stylish, scintillating “Cinderella” 

Mon Jan 22, 2024 at 1:43 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Jack Swanson as Prince Ramiro and Vasilisa Berzhanskaya as Cinderella in Rossini’s La Cenerentola at Lyric Opera. Photo: Michael Brosilow

Lyric Opera is having a bel canto moment.

The company ended last year with a winning production of Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, which nudged its way onto the 2023 Top Ten list.

Sunday afternoon Rossini’s La Cenerentola opened at the Civic Opera House, and Lyric’s first show of the new year served up even more of a vocal feast. With two impressive Chicago debuts, the company’s revival of Rossini’s comedy made for an enjoyable performance boosted by some supremely stylish bel canto singing.

Rossini’s melodramma giocoso premiered in 1817, two years after Barber of Seville and proved just as successful. Cenerentola offers a similarly effervescent take on the celebrated Cinderella fairy tale, with a ceaseless run of arias, ensembles and choruses plus brilliant breakout moments for the two romantic leads.

Taking the title role of Cinderella (aka Angelina) is Vasilisa Berzhanskaya. In her company bow, the young Russian mezzo-soprano showed she is the real thing, possessing a rich, dusky voice produced with striking ease throughout its range. 

Berzhanskaya made initial impact with an affecting take on Angelina’s sad song (“Una volta c’era un re”). Her singing was slightly underprojected in the early going and verged on inaudible in the first ensemble. But Berzhanskaya soon found her footing and proved agile and pure of tone in the Act I love duet (“Un soave non so che”). Cinderella’s concluding aria and rondo after she is crowned Princess was the show-stopper it should be, as the Russian singer sailed through Rossini’s trills, rapid-fire fioritura and roulades with rich tone, technical fluency and vocal grace.

Dramatically, Berzhanskaya was an engaging heroine, nicely underplayed and touching in her shy attraction to the disguised prince, Ramiro. She brought a quiet dignity to the role that contrasted with all of the comic craziness going on around her.

Also making his Lyric debut was Jack Swanson as Ramiro, the prince who is masquerading as his valet to find a wife who is unfazed by his royal position. 

The young Minnesota native made a dashing prince and displayed the kind of vibrant high tenor well suited to the role. Rarely will one hear the Act I “meet” duet rendered so stylishly by such a well-matched pair of singers. Swanson tackled the daunting challenges of Rossini’s stratospheric writing impressively; if his initial top notes were a bit throaty, Swanson threw off his Act II showpiece aria (“Si, ritrovarla io giuro”) with energetic panache and multiple ringing high C’s.

Even more than most Rossini operas, Cenerentola is a true ensemble piece with five roles that get as much stage time as the title heroine. (The quintet and sextet are high points of the entire score.) Fortunately, Lyric managed to come up with a terrific cast of singers that were fully equal to the task.

Alessandro Corbelli as Don Magnifico and Joshua Hopkins as Dandini in La Cenerentola. Photo: Michael Brosilow

The versatile Joshua Hopkins proved ideal as Dandini, the valet who is enjoying his masquerade as the prince a bit too much. Hopkins provided most of the afternoon’s laughs, with his wily stage presence and wry comic touch. Vocally, he showed himself a surprisingly deft Rossini stylist, getting his ample baritone around the quick patter writing with impressive speed and agility.

It was good to have Alessandro Corbelli back so soon as Don Magnifico after his turn as Sulpice in La fille last November. Cinderella’s abusive, crooked stepfather is a nastier character than found in most buffa comedies but Corbelli’s natural charm found the humor in the character and made the most of his two solo arias. While some of his tempos were rather cautious, Corbelli handled his quick patter music in Act II with worthy dexterity.

There is no fairy godmother in Rossini’s Cinderella. Rather the plot is set into motion by the Prince’s good-hearted tutor, the philosopher Alidoro. Nicholas Newton brought a dignified benevolence and weighty bass-baritone to the role, showing nimbleness in his Act 1 aria for such a large voice.

The single duo-debit on the show came in the roles of Cinderella’s evil stepsisters Clorinda and Tisbe, taken by Teresa Castillo and Sophia Maekawa (Ryan Center member) respectively. Vocally both were fine, singing with worthy tone and handling the bel canto challenges as well as their experienced colleagues.

Unfortunately, the two mugged outrageously in a way that at times threatened to upstage the other singers and not in a good way. Yes, Cinderella’s stepsisters are broad comic roles and meant to be grotesque, but their distracting, over-the-top antics managed to be cartoonish and silly without ever actually being funny. (Who thought it was a good idea to plant a ridiculous prosthetic Pinocchio nose on Tisbe?)

Revival director Gregory A. Fortner should have told both singers to take it down a notch (two notches in the case of the hyperactive Castillo). As shown by seasoned pros like Hopkins and Corbelli, in comic opera, less is more. That lapse apart, Fortner generally handled the busy stage action well, keeping Rossini’s music to the fore where it belongs.

Musically, the evening got off to a slack start with Yi-Chen Lin’s over-moulded Overture lacking in Rossinian wit. After that the young conductor proved a worthy bel canto stylist in her company debut. Lin balanced the complex ensembles with a sure hand and led Rossini’s score with verve and elegance, eliciting precise ensemble and pinpoint articulation from the Lyric Opera Orchestra.

Prepared by chorus master Michael Black, the men of the Lyric Opera Chorus proved a sonorous and lively bunch in their various guises as soldiers, retainers and party guests.

Jean-Pierre Ponnelle may have died 36 years ago but the French designer-director’s many opera productions are still going strong. Ponnelle’s 1969 San Francisco Opera staging may be antediluvian by shelf date, but it still works. Ponnelle’s simple but effective storybook facades nicely paint Don Magnifico’s dilapidated two-story mansion (with little boxes for individual rooms) as well as the exterior and interior of Prince Ramiro’s palace.

La Cenerentola runs through February 10.

Photo: Michael Brosilow

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Two stellar debuts spark Lyric’s stylish, scintillating “Cinderella” ”

  1. Posted Jan 23, 2024 at 6:40 am by Laurie Connor

    I think the audience disagreed with you about the sisters! Perhaps not your taste, which is fair as you are an expert. But it would also be fair to note that the crowd was with them in laughter. The image of them taking their turns dancing seductively & rhythmically toward Dandino will probably stay with me for quite some time, but I don’t think they upstaged. In fact they usually stood stock still when the leads sang all together in the quintet/sextet etc.

  2. Posted Jan 27, 2024 at 10:03 am by Lawrence Eckerling

    There were also a few high Ds!!!!

  3. Posted Feb 04, 2024 at 4:07 pm by Alexander

    2/4 matinee
    I am in love with Lyric again
    Ponnell’s production is resounding great; cast splendid; orchestra and chorus are their normal excellent and conductor is absolutely to the point in tempos and style

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