La Cenerentola/ Die Zauberflöte, Glyndebourne, East Sussex

A pair of dirty sisters does not a summer make
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The Independent Culture

In the pre-publicity for his new production of La Cenerentola, Glyndebourne veteran Sir Peter Hall announced that he would not be playing for laughs. It is fair to say that he has stuck to his guns in this respect, for a grumpier Cenerentola would be hard to find. Along with the porcine double-takes and loopy eye-rolling of heritage opera buffo, much of the charm and wit of this acidic little opera has been lost.

In the pre-publicity for his new production of La Cenerentola, Glyndebourne veteran Sir Peter Hall announced that he would not be playing for laughs. It is fair to say that he has stuck to his guns in this respect, for a grumpier Cenerentola would be hard to find. Along with the porcine double-takes and loopy eye-rolling of heritage opera buffo, much of the charm and wit of this acidic little opera has been lost.

Where Rossini subverts Perrault's fairytale by making the ugly sisters attractive on the outside, Hall illustrates their inner ugliness with a lavish application of stage filth. So grubby are the Magnifico residence and its inhabitants that one has to wonder what poor, arrogant Angelina (Ruxandra Donose) does with her time. Certainly she's a lousy cleaner. Her hapless father Don Magnifico (Luciano di Pasquale) has stains on his breeches that even the most disadvantaged denizen of Skid Row would blanch at, while her step-sisters Tisbe (Lucia Cirillo) and Clorinda (Raquela Sheeran) are slatterns who entertain visitors in their tide-marked underwear. Having thus established the family as a freak-show and Angelina as a skivvy with attitude problems, Hall's Dandini (Simone Alberghini), Don Ramiro (Maxim Mironov) and Alidoro (Nathan Berg) are ciphers whose sole distinguishing characteristic is their relative hygiene. The relationships between them are undeveloped, the first encounter between Angelina and Ramiro mishandled, and the crucial Act I finale staged as a slow-motion search for a lost contact lens.

Take the humour out of Dorothy Parker's aperçus and all that remains is the bitter ranting of a disappointed drunk. Rossini, a life-long depressive, is much the same. As Patrice Caurier, Moshe Leiser and Mark Elder showed in their waspishly elegant, New Look production for the Royal Opera House in 2000, La Cenerentola needs a flash of fairydust to offset its vitriol. Yet Hall, who was never an Angry Young Man, has turned a sophisticated satire into a kitchen sink drama.

Against the austere background of Hildegard Bechtler's stiff period sets, Peter Mumford's lighting lurches bizarrely from muted naturalism to high farce. Spotlights close in with violent speed, then disappear like happy slappers. Arias, duets and ensembles pass by, some well sung (di Pasquale's Sia qualunque delle figlie), others (Donose and Mironov's Un soave non so che) not. Stranded by their director, assaulted by random lighting changes, and accompanied sourly, unstylishly and unsympathetically by Vladimir Jurowski in the pit, Glyndebourne's light-voiced cast are unable to shine individually or collectively.

Hall's Cenerentola is a charmless start to a worryingly conservative season. Thankfully, it is outclassed by the current revival of Adrian Noble's 2004 Die Zauberflöte: still too hippy-dippy for my taste, but greatly improved by casting adjustments and tighter spoken dialogue. With due credit to the succulent sound of Eric Cutler's Tamino (an impressive debut), Christopher Maltman's bright, witty Papageno, Lisa Milne's sweet-natured Pamina, and the ravishingly expressive singing of trebles Harry Sever, Andrew Bullmore and James Way as the Three Boys, the main pleasure of Die Zauberflöte is to be found in the playing of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Sir Charles Mackerras. Die Zauberflöte is a curious opera, sublimely scored yet suffering from a massive gap between the Enlightenment it espouses and the variously naive, superstitious or selfish actions of its characters. Here that gap is closed by the orchestra, whose playing embraces human frailty and the highest ideals. Truth and beauty indeed.

But one glowing Mozart does not a Glyndebourne summer make. Has the festival lost its nerve? Whether you loved them or loathed them, productions such as Peter Sellars's Theodora and Idomeneo, Nikolaus Lehnhoff's Tristan, Deborah Warner's Fidelio, Christof Loy's Iphigénie en Aulide and Richard Jones's Euryanthe were significant events. In these there was a sense that you were seeing programming that could not be matched in any other British opera house: a collective imagining distinctive enough to keep you intellectually and emotionally engaged throughout the champagne and air-kissing, and the unwrapping, consuming, spilling and repacking of the long dinner interval. For me, that was what distinguished Glyndebourne from its rival companies. On current form, it's just Garsington and Grange Park with better facilities.

a.picard@independent.co.uk

'La Cenerentola' and 'Die Zauberflöte': Glyndebourne Festival Opera, East Sussex (01273 813813), to 16 July and 10 July respectively

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