‘Cinderella’ rises from the ashes

   Juan Diego Flórez photographed by Pietro Spagnoli


Juan Diego Flórez photographed by Pietro Spagnoli

“In both darker and lighter versions of fairy tales, a woman’s suffering is demanded in exchange for true love and happily ever after,” Roxane Gay wrote in “The Marriage Plot” for the May 11 New York Times’ Week in Review section. 

That may be, but not all fairy tales are created equal. Take “Cinderella," on Broadway in its Rodgers and Hammerstein incarnation. She’s not waiting for Prince Charming to rescue her. Rather she goes out to find the man who will appreciate her for who and what she really is.

Rossini’s operatic version, “La Cenerentola,” goes the Brothers Grimm and Rodgers and Hammerstein one better. The composer puts a Judeo-Christian spin on the ultimate “Extreme Makeover” story. Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother is an angel sent from above, who also happens to be the prince’s tutor, Alidoro. The mean-girl stepsisters are still around, but the wicked stepmother is a wicked stepfather, the buffoonish Don Magnifico, thereby removing some of the misogynistic elements of the fairy tale formula in which an older woman is jealous of the pretty young thing.

Then, too, Cinderella isn’t the only one in disguise. The prince – called here Don Ramiro – has traded places with his valet, the dandified Dandini, to find a woman who will love him for himself. That woman is, of course, Cinderella, called Angelina here, who’s more interested in love, goodness and forgiveness than she is in being a princess.

All of this is conveyed delightfully in The Metropolitan Opera’s production, which was simulcast into theaters May 10, with the rebroadcast set for May 14. Cesare Lievi’s concept is part Magritte, part Marx Brothers. (Think bowler hats, rooms giving way to blue skies and plenty of slapstick.) The ballroom scene is less a ballroom scene than a dinner party right out of “Lady and the Tramp,” down to the checked tablecloths and strategic spaghetti.

Only the spaghetti really flies in this laugh-out-loud musical-chairs moment. If it’s silliness, it’s silliness in service of great bel canto opera, with its long, lush, lyrical lines and intricate coloratura. This stuff is not easy to sing, but The Met’s production had two of the greatest bel canto practitioners – Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Flórez – heading the splendid cast. I’ve been a fan of these stars since I first saw them in another Rossini classic, “The Barber of Seville.” I was struck then as I am now by their ease with this complex music, their chemistry and their depth of feeling.

DiDonato in particular gave her Cinderella a defiance and desperation that made her forgiveness of her family’s transgressions all the more powerful.

She understood that clothes don’t make the woman. The woman makes the woman.

The clothes are merely the setting for the jewel that is the woman herself.

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