MUSIC / Not-so-ugly sisters: Stephen Walsh on Welsh National Opera's Cinderella

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The Independent Culture
I find myself mildly bemused by Welsh National Opera's current 'Cinderella Project'. It's a good story, but its operatic yield has been modest: a fine Rossini, a second-rank Massenet, a Maxwell Davies schools piece. Perhaps WNO is dropping hints to fairy godmothers. Or is it the general director Matthew Epstein's idea of pumpkin pie?

No pumpkins, admittedly, in Rossini's Cenerentola, where the fairy godmother is Prince Charming's (alias Don Ramiro's) tutor, Alidoro, and Cinderella (Angelina) leaves behind, not a slipper, but the bracelet which she invites Ramiro to match if he really cares about her - a nice romantic substitution of redemptive womanhood for old-fashioned magic. Stephen Langridge, whose staging for WNO's BP Opera Circuit opened a 29-stop tour in the Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, on Guy Fawkes Day, is quick to grasp the prosaic aspect of Rossini's humour. His Don Magnifico is a shadow-boxing vulgarian who lives with his daughters in a pink-and-mauve convenience home (so who needs Cinderella?), while Ramiro's palace is barely more tasteful with its scarlet-and-green ancestral portraits. Even the translation (by Tony Britton, Nicholas Broadhurst and Langridge himself) is an ugly sister - rich in yuks and gob-smacks. It all makes for a fairly sharp and entertaining piece of operatic soap, though the coarseness needs leavening with more speed.

It's the musicians, however, who earn most of the honours, along with the odd plastic brickbat. Perhaps the star is David Seaman, who gets away with arranging the score for wind quintet, guitar and double-bass and persuades his wind-players to keep blowing for nearly three hours with crisp, musicianly phrasing and hardly a squawk. It doesn't always work: the guitar makes a good harpsichord, but in Rossini crescendos bowed strings are needed (think of all those wonderful nasal skirlings). The loss of the chorus, and with it Magnifico's cellar scene, is a less serious restriction on variety. Nevertheless I'm much in favour of these portable arrangements, which lend creative zest to the reductive process necessary for touring.

For the singers, too, it is no unqualified hardship. They suffer more exposure, but needn't struggle to be heard. This is certainly of benefit to Joanna Campion in the title role, a musicianly if not (yet) powerful mezzo who handles neatly both the physical and vocal change of persona from skivvy to princess. She needs, perhaps, to let rip more in her final Rondo. Of the rest, Charles Johnston is a stylish, witty Dandini, Ian Platt a boarish Magnifico in all but voice, Stephen Richardson a personable Alidoro. The best singing, though, comes from Gareth Lloyd as Ramiro and Gail Pearson as the venomously sparkling and not-so-ugly sister Clorinda. But the company is touring a flexi-cast, so such judgements are provisional.

On tour in Wales and southern England until February. Details: 0222 464666