What could be simpler than the classic story of Cinderella?
Well, a lot of things actually, especially if you’re talking about “La Cenerentola,” Gioachino Rossini’s retelling of the fairy tale. Although the central story may be straightforward and familiar, mounting a full production of the opera can be astoundingly complex, especially as it involves all the notoriously meticulous demands of an intricate bel canto score.
“Telling this story well can be difficult, and that’s what attracts me the most,” says Spanish director Joan Font, who helms the upcoming Atlanta Opera production of “La Cenerentola,” which will open the company’s 40th anniversary season. “Rossini’s music serves as the emotional thread of the story, bringing together music and text, characters and staging, so that no one element is the main protagonist, but it is the magic of the whole that creates this journey.”
Although Rossini’s score contains plenty of musical fireworks, the opera’s retelling is devoid of supernatural elements. (Reportedly, both Rossini and his librettist disliked the idea of too many stage effects and magical plot turns.) So there’s no pumpkin stagecoach and no impending midnight stroke. A wise tutor takes the place of the fairy godmother, and Prince Charming (here called Don Ramiro) is left with a bracelet rather than a glass slipper.
Nevertheless, for his production, originally created for Houston Grand Opera in 2007, Font wanted to put some magic back into the story. The production features a colorful, toy box-like setting, fanciful costumes and elaborate, whipped cream-like wigs. “Not everything is what it seems, and we are constantly immersed in a process of transformation, not only of the characters, the space or the time, but also of the costumes, the furniture and the artifacts,” he says. “In our version, we have reintroduced animal characters with extraordinary powers.”
But of course, as the name implies, the most important element of a “bel canto” production is the singing,
“The music, it’s really champagne,” says Argentinian tenor Santiago Ballerini, who will perform the role of Prince Don Ramiro. Ballerini says one of the great challenges of a bel canto role is concentrating on technique while not appearing to concentrate on technique.
The production marks Ballerini’s auspicious return to Atlanta Opera. Early in his burgeoning career, he was an inaugural member of the Atlanta Opera Studio Artists program in 2016-17. The program trains emerging artists by having them work alongside professionals during the course of an opera season. For Ballerini, the Studio Program was trial by fire.
Studio singers typically take on smaller roles in mainstage productions, but when the lead tenor in the Atlanta Opera’s 2017 production of “Don Pasquale” called in sick a few hours before opening night, it fell on Ballerini to perform the entire role at a moment’s notice.
The performance went well, and Ballerini has since performed on many of the world’s great opera stages. The return to Atlanta for the role of Don Ramiro, Ballerini says, will be special for him. “It’s the community that gave me the energy to start this career,” he says. “You never forget where you started. For me to come back to play the prince is kind of amazing. I’m in love with this role, and it’s a new chapter for me.”
The story of his last-minute substitution is pretty unbelievable, but it’s actually only one element in a career that has seemingly always had a thread of astonishing synchronicity to it. Ballerini was a 26-year-old addiction therapist in Argentina when he first began studying opera. He initially took voice lessons to improve his interactions with patients. Astounded by the quality of Ballerini’s voice, the coach encouraged him to audition at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires’ famous opera house. Ballerini was picked from a pool of 250 hopeful singers at his first audition, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“The truly great performers possess an ability to connect with the audience in an uncanny way and share with them their inner souls,” says Atlanta Opera Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun. “Santiago is one of these performers who not only has immaculate technique, musical instincts and acting chops, but his secret weapon is this mysterious ‘it’ factor that only few performers possess. From the moment he set a foot on our stage, we witnessed a star.”
The ability to share inner life through music is also a quality Zvulun says he admires in the production’s mezzo-soprano Emily Fons, who will perform the lead role of Angelica, the Cinderella role. “It’s one of my favorite Rossini pieces,” says Fons. “Her character has a gracefulness the whole way through.” The great challenge is the technique demanded by bel canto roles. “You have to be a risk-taker on the one hand, but not let yourself get out of control. Technically you have to be on your A game from the first note of the opera to the last. You can’t take anything for granted.”
In all, even with no pumpkin stagecoach or fairy godmother, Font says he hopes the combination of star power, stagecraft and beautiful music creates plenty of magic on stage. “I wanted to set up an opera that was beautiful, that would arouse smiles and surprises, that would excite and make you travel to new universes,” he says. “This is the great final challenge, the journey inside oneself.”
‘La Cenerentola.’ Presented by Atlanta Opera. Nov. 2-10. $38-$134. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, www.atlantaopera.org.
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