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Pittsburgh Opera presents delightfully funny 'Cinderella'

| Thursday, Nov. 21, 2002

Theater is commonly divided into tragedy and comedy, the latter all too often merely "not sad."

Pittsburgh Opera's production of "Cinderella," however, is a comic triumph that elicits laughter as intense and often as the best movies and sitcoms.

Both musically and dramatically, the presentation of Giachino Rossini's "La Cenerentola" is not to be missed. Mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux's debut in the title role is a triumph and is supported by an excellent cast.

The stylishness of the performance reflects the high-level versatility music director John Mauceri has brought to the company. The first two operas this season were 19th-century Italian "Un Ballo in Maschera" by Giuseppe Verdi and now the much earlier style of Rossini.

The company's dramatic versatility also is highlighted by the first two productions. "Ballo" was completely satisfying in a traditional way. "Cinderella" offers bold innovation.

Rossini's opera tells the story of a girl mistreated by her stepsisters and father who marries a prince. But the opera removes the fairy godmother and other supernatural elements found in the familiar children's story, as well as the slippers.

The production by director Thor Steingraber is wonderfully conceived and executed with stunning attention to comic detail. He sets the story as a spoof of 1950s American Pop culture. Cinderella's own story is told straight, but she is surrounded by characters who are outrageously funny. The wicked sisters, for example, wear fun, sky-high beehive hairdos, like the rock group The B-52's. And the production gains strength from the mainstreaming of gay culture, reflected for example in Act II with a dance for men that could have been out of the film "Victor/Victoria."

Steingraber's musical sensitivity is also impressive. Stage movements are closely dovetailed with humor in the score, which creates a synergy stronger than any imposed concept can be. In fact, the brilliance of this production shows why Steingraber was chosen — as he was for last season's "Don Giovanni," disappointing though it turned out to be, and why he'll return later this season for "Elektra."

Genaux's brilliant portrayal of Angelina — who is Cinderella — emphasizes that this Pittsburgh Opera debut was long overdue. Rossini wrote florid music for Genaux's character, but her agile performance is far more impressive than just brilliant. She makes the coloratura sound natural and expressive. And the feeling she brings to the simpler lines of her little aria near the start of the opera, and which will be heard again, is remarkable for its poise and sincerity.

Both Kevin Glavin as Don Magnifico and Gino Quilico as Dandini command the stage in crucial comedic roles. Glavin, as the transparently ambitious and manipulative father, is a chameleon. He is pushy but cowers on a dime. Glavin's comic moves include references to Jackie Gleason and others but have such continuity that the performance is another demonstration of the singer's complete mastery of stage comedy. He sings beautifully and with ample strength.

Quilico's Dandini, friend of the prince, also commands the stage with complete assurance. Comedy requires a sure touch, and he thrives on the edge of exaggeration. And his comedic vocal coloration is an example of inspired singing.

Suzanna Guzman and Constance Hauman, both making company debuts, were wonderful as the wicked sisters Tisbe and Clorinda. By turns flirtatious and mean spirited, they are an essential foil for the drama and a lot of fun as well.

Tenor Tracy Welborn's portrayal of Don Ramiro paralleled Genaux's of his love Cinderella: The comedy surrounds these characters whose search for love is respected. Although he sang artistically, the tenor had little strength above the break.

Eric Owens acts well as Alidoro, but although his voice is appealing in tone it lacks the agility needed to fully realize his role.

Mauceri reseated the orchestra for this production and used a tastefully amplified fortepiano for the recitatives. But his stylishness was not only a matter of sonorities; it grew naturally out of superb tempi and specific articulation to create a perfect environment for the singers to prosper.

Finally, "Cinderella" is fresh demonstration that Pittsburgh Opera's artistic growth is for real. This show is a hoot.

Pittsburgh Opera's production of "Cinderella" will be repeated at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Tickets: $16 to $105. Details: (412) 456-6666 or www.pittsburghopera.com .

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