La Cenerentola, Royal Opera House, London<br/>Handel's Messiah, Barbican, London

Flawless finish to a fairy-tale debut
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The Independent Culture

The princess pursued by paparazzi is nothing new, but it propels Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier's 2001 staging of Rossini's La Cenerentola back to the 20th century; the Fifties, to be precise. There's more than a touch of Fellini in the frocks and attitudes, and the vibrant pastel paint samples covering the wallpaper at Don Magnifico's run-down palazzo are a telltale sign that the times they are a-changin'.

But arbitrary updates do not a production make, and, notwithstanding the directors' way with the "controlled anarchy" of Rossini's key ensembles, there is little here to enchant the eye unless a turquoise roller carrying Angelina off to the ball does it for you.

No, enchantment arrives in the vocal bluster of well-practised Rossinians and there were one or two at work. The conductor, Evelino Pido, managed the infernal crescendos with some lan, but didn't always command visual authority over the stage, where impatient voices rushed fences and compromised the ensemble on a number of occasions.

Then there was the Don Magnifico of Alessandro Corbelli, an authentically Italian old-stager whose particular brand of ham would, one suspects, remain the same, regardless of the production.

Stphane Degout's Dandini was vocally under the weather, it was announced, but I thought his awkward, aspirated runs and latent gruffness actually worked in his favour, suggesting that his impersonation of the Prince was not quite as accomplished as he thought. The real Prince, Don Ramiro, was Toby Spence, whose brave, open, and super-bright sound carried the coloratura passages forward with panache. But the placement of his lyric tenor is not so high as to bring a sense of ease or security around high Cs or even Ds and these "money notes" were a stretch for him.

Not so Magdalena Kozena, making her much-anticipated debut as Angelina. Technically, she was flawless, and she rightly brought down the house with the dizzying pyrotechnics of her final aria. But while her wide eyes and gangly gait conveyed a certain vulnerability, she lacked personality. The voice is beautiful, but somewhat anonymous, and I missed the warmth that her joyous final number should convey. Not even her fairy godfather, Alidoro (the excellent Lorenzo Regazzo), could change that.

Over at the Barbican, it's that time of year again and though there are now 18 in The Sixteen, there can be no return to the norm of massed voices wheeled out every year for the world's favourite oratorio. Like Christmas pudding, this is the connoisseur option, with Harry Christophers insightfully demonstrating yet again how less is more how a handful of good voices can scrub down the choral counterpoint, open up the texture, and give the words room to breathe. Hallelujah.

It is amazing how Handel's expressive purpose is revitalised through greater flexibility in the chorus. Massed voices are more opaque, they corner less efficiently; safer tempi choices are inevitable. But mostly it's the clarity and colour of the text that transforms the sound. Note how Christophers had his singers lift and radiate the word "wonderful" each time it appeared in "For unto us a child is born"; how he drew out the suspensions that carry the burden of sorrow in "Surely He hath borne our griefs"; how the articulation generated terrific excitement in "Let us break our bonds asunder". The audience duly rose for the "Hallelujah Chorus", where the mighty public racket was achieved not through sheer volume or the splash of cymbals à la Thomas Beecham but through strategic crescendos to each climactic statement, natural trumpets and hard-sticked timpani blazing.

Christophers' soloists were excellent, too. The counter-tenor Iestyn Davies (replacing an indisposed Robin Blaze) has a very special quality. It's not just the sound poised and pure, a true male alto but the unpretentious honesty of his artistry that touches us. "He was despised" emerged like the still centre of the entire evening, with each restatement of the words left hanging in the air, while Handel's pained string ritornello reflected on their consequences.

Matthew Rose had splendid presence, with terrific agility for such a big voice. He and trumpeter Robert Farley delivered a stentorian summons with "The trumpet shall sound" and it was good to hear a bass whose coloratura did not amount to mere bluster.

John Mark Ainsley brought his customary authority to the tenor arias and Gillian Keith was vibrant and direct in all her contributions, not least, of course, the people's favourite, "I know that my Redeemer liveth". But it was Handel's gift to know just what the people wanted and never, ever, to short-change them.

'La Cenerentola' in rep to 9 January (020-7304 4000)

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