This Cinderella's magic is in the music
Some St. Louisans plan to lift their spirits above the unrelenting dog days with an evening of ravishingly beautiful music in a tale of good people triumphing over self-centered meanies. Gioacchino Rossini's "La Cenerentola" or "Goodness Triumphant" opens Friday July 29.
The opera includes some of Rossini's finest music and was written when he was 25, just after his masterpiece "The Barber of Seville."
La Cenerentola is Italian for The Cinderella but its story has many twists on the classic French fairy tale. In this version, the prince is determined to be loved for himself not his material possessions or power.
And, in turn, "this Cinderella does not want to be a princess, she wants to be loved and respected, and she rejects the man who she thinks is the prince for his servant," said mezzo-soprano Abigail Fischer, who has been working on music for the title role for months.
"It's amazing music," she said before a recent rehearsal, tossing back her curly, thick red hair. A half dozens singers we interviewed volunteered that they loved singing this music. "Rossini tweaks the story," Fischer said. "It definitely has more humor and is more heartfelt than the Disney version. It's funny but also more profound. The characters are more lovable, and the romance is very palpable on both sides."
Stage director and company principal director Jolly Stewart is working with the singing actors to help them be funny but not slapstick.
"I don't want the humor to be silly," Stewart said. "I want the audience to laugh not at the characters but at themselves. We all know that we have the inclinations in ourselves to be selfish and stupid the way the stepfather and stepsisters are. This is an opera for adults, though kids will enjoy it. I hope the audience takes home the idea that we can restrain the bad and selfish emotions, the ugliness and let our good sides triumphant. "In this story two good people win. That sounds trite but it is important."
After Stewart's career as an opera singer in Italy, Germany, Austria and America she moved to St. Louis to teach at the Washington University music department where she has directed Washington U. Opera for two decades. She also runs Opera Theatre's summer camp for high school students.
On a recent hot night at rehearsal end, Stewart encouraged her cast of singing actors to kick up the humor and takes risks.
"Try things, if they go to far, I'll tell you," she said.
The cast laughed at themselves and each other as they dared one thing after another. Stewart's own comic flair was spotlighted stage center last season at Union Avenue Opera when she sang the cameo role of the Duchess of Krakenthrop in the company's "La Fille du Regiment."
If you think that you've seen this opera before, think twice. At least four musical theater pieces have similar titles. The oldest is the rarely performed Nicolo Isouard's 1810 Italian version, followed by this Rossini 1817 version, Massenet's 1899 French version then, Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1965 English version. All are based on the 17th Century French writer Charles Perrault's Cinderella.
Rossini's work is by far the most challenging to sing. Its story line is the most adult with insights into human nature, especially the foibles of vain nobility who have come on hard times and want to marry financial security.
Thoughtful Twists to the Classic Tale
If you are bringing children, they need to be warned that this version does not have a glass slipper, a pumpkin that turns into a coach or a fairy godmother/dressmaker. The wicked stepmother is a covetous stepfather. It is a simple story but because so many twists differ from the fairy tale a closer look is a good idea.
In the Rossini opera, the Prince of Salerno, named Don Romiro, wants a bride who would love him for himself not his title or his worldly goods. So, he cleverly does advance investigation before a palace ball where the most nation's most eligible young women will be presented to him.
The first test of character is performed by the prince's tutor who dresses as a beggar and goes door-to-door , observing which young women are kind to him. At Cinderella's house, the two fancy dressed stepsisters are obnoxious to the beggar but Cinderella, whose name is Angelina, dressed in rags, gives him food.
Romiro conducts the second test himself dressed as his servant Dandini. He visits houses of the ball invitees. Cinderella ignores the "prince's" advances and talks to the "servant," who is the real prince. With the help of the tutor, Cinderella goes to the ball in disguise as an unidentified guest. The prince falls in love with her. She gives him one of a pair of bracelets thinking him the servant who visited her family's house.
When the tutor asks the stepfather where his third daughter is, he lies, saying she is dead. After Cinderella returns home to her servant duties, the tutor becomes a rainmaker and provides a storm that sends the prince out of his coach just as he passes Cinderella's house. He seeks shelter and recognizes the girl in rags as his mysterious ball guest. Both see the bracelets. She's astonished that he is the prince not the servant.
"The twists in the plot make it much more interesting," said Fischer, who spent most of June singing on tour in Mongolia after springtime appearances in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. This is the first time the New York resident will sing in St. Louis.
For several cast members, this is a return engagement with the company. "When I was here (as Zweeite Dame) in Die Zauberflote in 1997 I had not work in that many opera companies. Now I have and I appreciate how professional this company is," said Kara Cornell, who sings Tisbe, the younger stepsister. "They get down to business. Don't waste time. Everyone here is pleasant."
Part of her pleasure is that she is staying with the same Union Avenue Opera patrons who hosted her 1997 visit.
"They are friends now," she said. "They invited me back just to visit even if I was not singing at the opera."
The cast arrived two weeks ago for rehearsals from all points of the compass. Cornell lives in Albany. Adam Fry, wicked stepfather Don Magnifico, lives in Pittsburgh. The tutor Alidoro is sung by Scott Levin of L.A. Conductor Elizabeth Hastings lives in New York, where she is musical director of the Liederkranz Opera, and has spends many summers conducting on Cape Cod at the Highfield Theatre.
"This is my first time in St. Louis and I love it," she said. "It's so cosmopolitan with much beautiful architecture everywhere you look: grand old buildings, high rises and a few blocks away beautiful gated streets, lovely suburbs close by and some not so grand. It's wonderful here."
Rooted in St. Louis
Union Avenue Opera's founder and artistic director Scott Schoonover auditions for singers on both coasts annually but he also takes great pleasure in giving some of the region's finest singers the spotlight.
"Cenerentola" stars include two St. Louisans with deep roots here. Gina Galati who sings Clorinda, the older stepsister, is a true daughter of the Italian-American Hill in St. Louis. She lived there until she was in third grade when her parents moved to Ladue but kept retuning to visit and eat, of course. As a grade school child she was a Muny Kid and sang for years in many productions including Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella."
She started college as a business major. When she got disappointing grades in economics, her mother urged to study what she loved: singing. So, Galati got a BA in music from Washington U. and a masters in Music in Voice and Opera at Kansas University. She's sung in opera companies across the nation and in Italy but she loves St. Louis and bought a house on the Hill and founded Winter Opera to spend more time here." She's well known to music lovers who go to the Bach Society, Compton Heights Band and St. Louis Symphony concerts. At Winter Opera earlier this year she sang Violetta in "La Traviata."
"I can fly to auditions all over from here," she said. "Not difficult."
The Prince is sung by Keith Boyer, a 13th or 14th generation Missourian, a descendant of French-Canadian Boyer and Politte pioneer families who settled in Ste. Genevieve and Old Mines in the early 1700s. Boyer majored in music at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and sang in the St. Louis Symphony Chorus for many years. He participated in Opera Theatre of St. Louis's Gerdine Young Singers apprentice program for two seasons and Kentucky Opera's Rudd Young Artists Program. This is his third season at Union Avenue Opera.
Boyer has some auditions this fall and hopes that he can do more work while living in St. Louis. Last August at Union Avenue, ee sang the role of Tchekalinsky in "Pikovaya Dama," while his eldest son sang in the children's chorus. The father and son enjoyed the share experience, he said.
"I love Rossini's music, all the quick movements to the voice, this is a fun piece to sing," he said.
Getting started in opera not easy. Since the birth of the second of his three sons, Boyer has supported his family with a management job at a Brentwood retail jewelry store. He has been studying with vocal teacher Christine Armistead of Washington University for a couple years. Next month Boyer, 34, begins study full time in the graduate music program at Washington U on a scholarship. No part time jobs in retail anymore, he hopes.
Both Boyer and Galati were raised in families that cherish music at home. Both had music education in grade and high school and sang in high school musicals: Galati at St. Joseph Academy and Boyer at Hillsboro High.
"I think you can have an opera career and live in St. Louis," Galati said. She an Boyer agreed that St. Louis has appreciative audiences.Tickets range from $30 - $52. For more information call its box office at 314-361-2881.