It's more challenging than meets the eye. His trademark is that irresistible crescendo -- music that starts off slowly, and then practically dances out of the pages. I've seen quite a few performances where the orchestra and singers simply couldn't maintain the momentum of Rossini's music, and so what is supposed to be funny and sparking falls like a lead ballon. Rossini also in his opera buffas demanded masterful patter singing from ALL his singers. That tricky sing-speech goes against the grain of the modern school of vocal training to keep vocal emission smooth and clean and full of legato. As a result, many Rossini ensembles with their tricky nonstop patter descend into inaudible garbled nonsense.
Tonight's La Cenerentola at the Metropolitan showed how great this music is, if done right, by singers who know the style. It's sweeter that it happened even after the high-profile cancellation by the uber-tenore di grazia Juan Diego Florez, who is
I think all doubts were erased by the end of the evening. Javier Camarena doesn't have the ready-for-HD looks of Florez, nor does his voice have quite the astonishing flexibility of Florez's voice, but he brings something entirely different and just as wonderful to La Cenerentola -- for one, VOLUME. Camarena's voice is not the lithe, somewhat narrow tenore di grazia voice. It's hard to believe that so much volume can come from such a little guy, but Camarena opens his mouth, and you're awash in waves of sound. The timbre of Camarena's voice is also sweeter and richer than Florez. His vocal flexibility is impressive on its own merits. And his top is ringing, free, and full of squillo. "Si, ritrovarlo io giuro" had a D thrown in for good measure, and ended on a huge, long-held high C that had the audience in hysterics.
Camarena's short stature and unassuming stage presence also made for some interesting dynamics in this La Cenerentola that would not have been present had Florez sung. For much of the opera, Prince Ramiro disguises himself as a valet as he discreetly observes the behavior of the Mountflagon household. It's Angelina/Cinderella's kindness to the "valet" that makes him fall in love with her. Florez is a natural prince type. He strides onstage, usually in a meticulously tailored special-made costume, and you know he's really the Prince. But Camarena was much more believable as the lowly valet, especially next to the magnificent Dandini of Pietro Spagnoli, who also happens to be a barihunk of the first order.
Speaking of Dandini. Pietro Spagnoli was the other "oh.my.god." performer of the night, really stealing almost every scene he was in. His voice is smooth and mellifluous, and he absolutely chewed the scenery as the valet who gets a little too comfortable playing the Prince. He and Camarena really were a wonderful pair together. What a great house debut for him.
Joyce DiDonato was an excellent Angelina, living up to her own very high standards of musicality and facility with Rossini music. She threw in some very florid, fun ornaments in "Non piu mesta" (although her usually long-held trill was a little hesitant) and her voice still has the requisite warmth needed for the part. "Una volta c'era un re" was sweet and wistful. Dramatically she wasn't as bouncy and, well, perky as I expected. She started off serious and kind of remained that way throughout the opera. I don't know whether that was an artistic choice or opening night nerves, because during the curtain calls she was again flashing her mega-watt smile.
Alessandro Corbelli (Don Magnifico), who has been along with Ruggiero Raimondi locking up those "character bass/baritone" parts, is really by now more a "character" than a "baritone." He's 61 and doesn't have much of an actual voice left, but he does have loads of experience in these opera buffa roles. He has the schtick nailed down pat, and he also has a real feel for the patter, so his numbers (like "Miei rampoli femmini") still have bounce and humor. Don Magnifico's two vain daughters (played by Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Rinsley) joined Corbelli by frantically throwing themselves into the comedy, even if some of their comic bits weren't really all that funny.
The only sour note in the evening was Luca Pisaroni's Alidoro. What happened to him? Just two years ago I heard him in The Enchanted Island. He was a stunning, stylish singer who also looked like a million bucks. Tonight he sounded tired and labored, huffing and puffing his way through his Act One aria and dropping out during ensembles.
Conductor Fabio Luisi did some awesome pinch-hitting during the seasons when Levine was too sick to conduct, at one point juggling complete Ring cycles with Manons and La Traviatas. But Jimmy's "back" and
The 1997 production by Cesar Lievi was a quickly assembled star vehicle for Cecilia Bartoli. It turns Rossini's earthy comedy into a slightly surreal fantasy where Don Magnifico's house and Ramiro's palace both have the same blue-and-white striped wallpaper. The only difference is Magnifico's house has crumbling furniture and holes all over the wallpaper, while Ramiro's palace has expensive-looking furniture and unblemished wallpaper. Yankee fans would love the blue-and-white pinstripe theme. There are also some regie-lite touches, like the anonymous chorus that's dressed in black evening suits (hmm, we've never seen that cliché, ever) and "humor" that's more sadistic than funny (Magnifico actually physically abuses Angelina). There's some whimsical clever moments, like Magnifico's ridiculous dream about being a donkey being accompanied by a flying donkey in the background. Some moments are played for cheap slapstick -- Act One ends in (what else?) a spaghetti food fight. And the ending is a Bridezilla fantasy -- Angelina in a poofy meringue gown on top of a statuesque wedding cake. Eh, it's not great, but it's probably better than yet another Bartlett Sher production.
At the end of the evening Mr. Camarena ran onstage for his curtain call. He waved. He blew kisses at the audience. He bowed deeply. He was so humble. He was so grateful. All that was missing from this moment was "Hello everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine."