★★★★☆ Australian Dane Lam conducts a fine performance with a firm grasp of Rossini’s style.

Opera Holland Park, London
July 20, 2016

It is a mistake to think that a Rossini comic opera is easy to perform just because it is fun to watch. As with comedy and farce in theatre, real skill and timing are required. The score for Cenerentola is no push over with its hectic speeds, complex ensembles and coloratura show pieces. Australian conductor Dane Lam sails through them all with aplomb, achieving high standards of musicianship from the City of London Sinfonia, Opera Holland Park chorus and soloists. Oliver Platt’s skilled direction also helps the evening fizz along.

Opera Holland Park is 21 years old this year, staging an ambitious five productions a year. There is a cleverly crafted stage which emerges from the ruins of Holland House and a sizable auditorium housed under a giant temporary cover. The stage may be a little wide and the acoustics not as perfect as some indoor venues, but the whole summer season has grown in reputation and has now become an important part of the London opera calendar. As testimony to their growing artistic reputation, La Cenerentola is a joint production with Danish National Opera.

Heather Lowe, Fleur de Bray, Victoria Simmons, Nicholas Lester and the Opera Holland Park Chorus

La Cenerentola was Rossini’s 19th opera, written when he was only 24 years old. It was premiered in Rome in January 1817 and only took three weeks to write. It is a classic rags to riches story and of course is the basis for the well-known Cinderella beloved of the pantomime stage. It is an opera theme with a strong pedigree in Italian opera alone and no wonder Rossini and his librettist Jacopo Ferretti were attracted to it.

From the start (on one of the hottest nights in London this year) Lam’s conducting was firm and assured with the opening soloists all in fine voice. Victoria Simmonds as Angelina (Cenerentola) achieved just the right tone of sadness but with an underlying sparkle of attractiveness. Fleur de Bray and Heather Lowe as Angelina’s demanding sisters Clorinda and Tisbe set the comic tone. Both were totally comfortable with the demands of the music and delighted the audience with their grotesque humour, creating much comic hilarity. Their coloratura was both accurate and firm of tone and I particularly loved the way they developed the comic pose into an art form.

Jonathan Veira as their father Don Magnifico was a joy to watch. He performs like a true Italian buffo and knows how to command an audience. His rich bass navigated the score with ease and he was genuinely funny.

In Cenerentola there is no Fairy Godmother but there is a beggar (Alidoro) sung by Barnaby Rea, who is a mentor to the Prince in disguise. It is he that ensures Angelina makes it to the ball and supplies her gown. Rea has a good stage presence and a sonorous bass, but he struggled a little with the more difficult of Rossini’s vocal pyrotechnics. Otherwise it was a fine performance conveying a serious edge to the comic shenanigans surrounding him. 

The Australian baritone Nicholas Lester was impressive as Dandini and looked every part the prince when in disguise as his master. It would be wrong to say here is a singer to watch because he already has a highly praised track record with a number of prestigious opera companies and watching him perform left me in no doubt that the praise was fully deserved. Lester has an envious vocal ease, roundness of tone and audience’s eyes never leave him when he is on stage. He brings real charm to the comic ensemble and an assured musicality.

Victoria Simmons and Nico Darmanin 

The real Prince Ramiro was ably sung by the Maltese tenor Nico Darmanin. There was a welcome ring to his top notes (and Rossini requires plenty of them) and no matter where he was on stage he cut through the sometimes difficult acoustics. He also navigated the right blend of comedy and passion, convincing us that he was a man determined and in love.

Some of the best transformations (no pumpkins to royal carriages here) are vocal ones. Simmonds’ performance as Angelina achieves this during her visit to the palace. The score changes to lush and melodic with the coloratura showing genuine passion and Simmonds navigated this mood change with ease. It is moments like this that reminded you Rossini can rise above the comic and write arias of great beauty.

The evening was well supported by some energetic and delightful work from the Holland Park chorus. The comedy was layered with so many individual touches but never upstaged the main action, adding greatly to the sense of fun. One vignette in particular caused great mirth when a footman carried a huge ledger containing births, marriages and deaths. His knees gradually buckle under the weight forcing him to draw on all his reserves to attempt to keep it upright.

A delightful evening, worth sweltering through in the heat, with the reward of great singing, assured conducting and genuine amusement.

Opera Holland Park performs La Cenerentola until July 30