LIVE REVIEW Cinderella Clonter Opera, Cheshire

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The Independent Culture
Clonter Opera was established two decades ago by the late Betty Bannerman as a trial venue for young singers emerging from the colleges, poised to make their mark with the established companies. Stagings take place in a former cowshed in south Cheshire, converted with intelligence, wit and a lack of ostentation into an engagingly compact venue, ample enough for a 300-strong audience. Sightlines and soundlines are not perfect, but, roofed supper interval included, it makes for a charming and - given as well-considered a production as its current Rossini Cinderella - rewarding night out.

The set, by Peter Ruthven Hall, is in essence two solid-looking revolving walls, oddly (and aptly) reminiscent of a stable interior, and a model of compactness, skilfully manoeuvred by the cast (notably Andrew Hammond's amiably Mephistophelean Alidoro) to generate a range of shapes and triangulations, perceptively lit in a range of almost televisual and subfusc yellow lights by Philip Edwards (Clonter's links with the RNCM in Manchester here showing to good effect).

In Jamie Hayes's clear, unfussy production, entrance and exit possibilities were ingeniously used, and never overmilked. The ugly (in fact, rather presentable) sisters' duets were cornily frantic, though Emma Silversides (Clorinda) and Louise Innes (Tisbe) could turn in a pert Frasquita and Mercedes in anybody's Carmen. James Rutherford brought a pleasing focus to Don Magnifico's arrival; in Goethean attire, he cut some presence; the voice is appealing, strong and varied, and he has a nice instinctive way with managing fluid recitative and preparing vocal transitions that, at 25, bodes well. His surfacing from the Prince's cellar for the tiff with Dandini produced some brisk comedy.

The real vocal interest lies where Clonter takes risks, and pulls them off. Jochem von Ast, Dutch-born, Guildhall-trained, was unsettled at first (on-stage costume changes don't help) but quickly, as Dandini togged up, established a nicely Shakespearian roguish stage presence. His Guildhall colleague, Malaysian-born David Quah, shared his initial insecurity. By the second half, though, both had ironed out the problems, and their whispering duet was a delight.

The production's plum was mezzo-soprano Harriet Williams. How rarely a young singer emerges with the verve and range to manage Rossini's contralto Cenenterola. But here is one. Her mellow tone and positive pitching paid countless dividends - never more so than in her magnificent coloratura over the closing quintet. The intimate, regal final tableau epitomised this common-sense production. Steven Maughan accompanied with panache on a 1950s-sounding Yamaha.