At age 25, Gioachino Rossini composed his operatic version of Cinderella in three weeks. La Cenerentola, ossia La bontà in trionfo (Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant) is an adaptation of the classic tale, with some twists. Some of the changes are to Rossini’s taste — replacing a wicked stepmother with a stepfather, and a fairy godmother with realism — and some are appeals to audiences of the time, such as exchanging the iconic glass slippers for glass bracelets.
“In the time that this opera was being shown, it was inappropriate for a woman to show her ankle,” said Spencer Britten, who plays Don Ramiro — Rossini’s answer to Prince Charming. “So no shoe, no ankle problems.”
Directed by the award-winning Nancy Hermiston, La Cenerentola tells its familiar yet fresh story through virtuosic acting, singing, orchestral music, costume and set design. Each aspect of the production plays indirectly on the pull between novelty and pre-knowledge inherent to any re-interpretive work.
The set hearkens back to a 1965 Dutch production and has done its fair share of travelling — the costumes are an eclectic mix of old, older and ones specially made for this production; and the opera is sung in Italian, with English subtitles projected above the stage that grant La Cenerentola a silent-film aesthetic. Additionally, even the actors and singers themselves often had to modify and rethink their musical techniques for La Cenerentola.
“I always like to say [opera singers] are like the high-performance athletes of music,” said Hermiston. “We’re dealing with a very high level of vocal technique and achievement.”
Charlotte Beglinger, who plays Cenerentola, agrees with Hermiston’s assessment, citing the tremendous range required of the leads. Another vocal difficulty stems from Rossini’s penchant for a technique involving rapid vocal runs known as coloratura.
“We have to do a lot of training, work and coaching,” said Beglinger. “So it just takes a lot of lessons.”
Perfecting their techniques also involved a demanding rehearsal schedule, sometimes for six hours a day, seven days a week — excluding individual practice. Many performing students also participate in theatre-related work study programs, which Hermiston said makes them well-rounded and therefore “better opera citizens.”
All the hard work undertaken for this production did not keep Belinger or Britten from enjoying the opera, however. The theme of La Cenerentola is obvious in its subtitle, Goodness Triumphant, which both leads take to heart.
“Cenerentola always sees the good in everything,” said Belinger, adding that Cenerentola — for all her sweetness — also fights subtly against her abuse. Meanwhile, Don Ramiro represents the other side of the same coin, growing angry when he witnesses injustice. Britten noted that such a dual-pronged message is warming, relatable and inspiring, “especially in this day and age.”
This UBC production also has a high overlap with professionals, bringing in members of the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, makeup and hair and wig artists, lighting experts, coaches and language specialists to help the students develop and display their talents. For all this officialdom though, La Cenerentola is not an opera for the stereotypically pretentious patron.
“I think it’s important that people know that [La Cenerentola] is a comedy,” said Beglinger. “It’s not a snobby opera — people shouldn’t be afraid to come dressed up as they go to school, or wearing jeans.”
Britten agreed, adding that La Cenerentola is a good gateway opera because of its familiarity and humour.
Through its elaborate set, opulent costuming, physical comedy and practiced acting, La Cenerentola promises to deliver on Hermiston’s hope that it will help “chase away the rain.”
La Cenerentola will be running from February 1-4. Tickets are available online.