Sunday, July 02, 2000

Opera review

Pancella thrills crowd with acting and singing

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella clapped her hands and kicked her feet at the end of La Cenerentola Thursday night, it was hard to tell whether she was overjoyed at getting her prince — or at surviving Rossini's treacherous vocal acrobatics unscathed.

        Rossini's frothy opera is slightly different from the Cinderella of Perrault's Tales of Mother Goose. Instead of the glass slipper, for instance, there are matched bracelets; instead of a fairy godmother, there is Alidoro, the philosopher.

        What kept the predictable tale from becoming tedious in Cincinnati Opera's traditional production directed by David Gately was an extraordinary cast of singers, all of them making their Cincinnati Opera debuts.

        There was something magnetic about Ms. Pancella every time she was onstage. As the poor but good Angelina (Cinderella) who is harassed by her old stepsisters, she was a natural actress. She communicated easily with the ensemble, and projected an engaging persona.

        But if her acting was good, her singing was exhilarating. She added a touch of poignancy to her opening “Una volta c'era un re” (Once upon a time there was a king), displaying a velvety mezzo and navigating the coloratura runs, leaps and flourishes accurately. She tackled the Act II showpiece, “Nacqui all'affanno” (Born to sorrow) impressively, with a gleam in her eye.

        Tenor Bruce Fowler was striking, both visually and vocally, as the Prince. His bravura aria vowing to find Cinderella, “Si ritrovarla io giuro,” was thrilling as much for his control and passion as for his spectacular high notes.

        Timothy Nolen, as Cinderella's stepfather Don Magnifico, displayed perfect comic timing and an expressive, focused baritone. His aria, “Sia qualunque delle figlie” (Whichever of my daughters) was humorous and blustery, and the production benefited from his pompous presence.

        Stephen Powell was brilliant as Dandini, the valet who trades places with the prince. He shone in the comic duet with Don Magnifico, “Un segreto d'importanza,” revealing at the last moment that he was really the valet. Richard Bernstein projected a smooth, powerful bass-baritone as Alidoro.

        In her overdue company debut, Cincinnatian Blythe Walker was hilarious as the stepsister Clorinda. She and stepsister Frankie Hatcher (Tisbe) were consistently funny — even though the roles are unavoidably cliched.

        Instead of turning to slapstick or weirdness, Mr. Gately struck a balance in the sometimes wacky ensembles with choreographed motions that mimicked the music and lots of freeze action. For the stretta finale to Act I, there was a dream sequence of swirling light and shadows with the singers moving in slow-motion.

        It was an effective touch. But between the comedy, there was a great deal of standing around; consequently, the first act dragged. Still, the combination of fine singing and the realistic, pretty set (from Baltimore Opera) appealed to the audience of 2,918, who stood at its conclusion.

        Under conductor Steven Crawford, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit was less consistent than it was last week. Mr. Crawford plowed through the score briskly, alternating between aiding the singers beautifully and overwhelming them.

        The very fine chorus of courtiers was expertly prepared by Henri Venanzi.


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