Opera / LA CENERENTOLA Garsington

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The Independent Culture
Like natural sculpture, where craggy brick or bark reveal some figurative allusion, the background of Garsington blends effortlessly with its stage artifice. To see Thomas Randle - garbed in white riding coat as Rossini's Prince Ramiro - wandering through the fastigiate conifers of the parterre to make his entrance through a solid stone arch is to enjoy the finer points of the game of illusion. But there are drawbacks. When said Prince arrives in Act 2 to find his Cinderella in a Beethovenian orchestral storm, and the darkling clouds beyond the auditorium-screens look set to burst in sympathy, then that's the price of doing opera out of doors in England in June.

In its seventh year, Garsington Opera and its patrons are used to such perils. Indeed, whatever the weather, the on-stage living shrubbery and red roses round the casements, whence the ugly sisters called down to Cinderella on Sunday's opening night, are part of the rustic charm. Recreating a palace and a run-down country house in a rather grander real-life one, designer Ruari Murchison used a simple upstairs-downstairs set: on top, the decrepit baronial hall and royal palace; below, the servants' quarters and tiring-room.

And here lurked Alidoro, sung by Matthew Best in a dark, liquid bass- baritone well suited to his role as sly deus ex machina. "Cinderella, or Goodness Triumphant" is the opera's full title and, by the close, the wheel has come full circle and the rich in spirit are rewarded. Hard to credit today, of course, not least among this grandee audience, where rewards, one suspects, are usually acquired with a little help from your friends. So the wheel turns, but with Alidoro's assistance. There's the usual stage magic, of course, smoke and fireworks; but underneath it all, he's just a schemer.

Yet however you play it, the music carries the mood, and this is one of Rossini's liveliest, most cherished scores. Its jewels are in the ensembles, quintets and sextets, where the characters reveal their separate surprise and dismay, and in the unstoppable buffo finale, where who gets what is made crystal clear in the accompaniment.

Richard Suart brought all his comic distinction to the role of the ironically named Don Magnifico, drunken father to Clorinda and Tisbe. The soprano Rosie Ashe and the mezzo Christine Botes, his stage daughters, survived the usual hideous travesties to make something surreal of the ugly sisters. While, as the valet Dandini, Karl Daymond, strongly timbred yet curiously weightless in tone, wore a look of continual surprise, befitting one who, Warhol-like, becomes Prince for 15 minutes.

Conducted by Charles Peebles, the Garsington Opera Orchestra (including elements of the Guildhall String Ensemble) projected surprisingly well, though not well enough, perhaps, to disturb the angry village neighbours who complained of "noise pollution" last year.

Over them all soared the voice of Jean Rigby, always a commanding presence, as the heroine. From the start, her resonant chest voice betrayed more passion than is right for a simple servant girl, a case that was proved in the glorious mezzo-soprano coloratura of her final aria of triumph and reconciliation.

n To 8 July at Garsington Opera, near Oxford (box-office 01865 361636) in repertoire with Haydn's 'La Fedelta Premiata' and a double-bill of Mozart's 'Der Schauspieldirektor' and Strauss's 'Daphne'