Conventionally labeled a comic opera, Gioachino Rossini's "Cinderella," which opened Saturday at the Ordway Center in Minnesota Opera's strongly staged, superbly sung production, is more complicated than the label implies. The work's juxtapositions of light and dark, its mix of comic and serious characters, can disorient the spectator. In her opening lines, Cinderella -- called Angelina in this moralizing, magic-shunning version of the rags-to-riches tale -- strikes a note of minor-key pathos that never quite dissipates. "I was born to sorrow and tears," she reminds us in the final scene, which offers reconciliation with her stepfamily but avoids happily-ever-afterish affirmations.
Director/choreographer Doug Varone can't resolve the tensions in the work (pumped out in less than a month by Rossini and librettist Jacopo Ferretti) but plays intriguingly with its balances, often pushing the proceedings towards the pole of farce. In Act 2, for instance, Varone deliberately hollows out Prince Ramiro's "Love spurs me on" aria, which becomes one long sight gag when the earnest Prince is undressed and redressed while singing. Here, the laughter comes at a price worth paying.
Less convincing is the centerpiece of Varone's effort to create movement that complements the springy, mocking tone of Rossini's music: a silly little bouncing step, seen throughout the evening, that, like any shtick, gets old fast (and is arguably redundant in the first place). But I'll forgive this bit of well-meaning banality in gratitude for Varone's enactment (with umbrella-wielding choristers) of the Prince's carriage accident -- one of the most wildly imaginative things I've seen in a theater.
About Roxana Constantinescu's Angelina there can be no difference of opinion. This fetching Romanian, who makes her American stage debut with these performances, is a world-class coloratura mezzo-soprano (always an underpopulated vocal category). From her rich lower register, reminiscent of a vintage port wine, to her radiant top, her singing is seamless. Her acting, too, is remarkably accomplished; she can telegraph shades of vulnerability, determination and confusion in the blink of an eye. It takes no clairvoyance to foresee a brilliant career for her.
In a cast without weaknesses, bass Donato DiStefano's Don Magnifico (Angelina's stepfather) stands out. DiStefano is a great Italian singing actor, commanding every trick in the comedian's arsenal, and manages to be spectacularly stylish without concealing Magnifico's abusiveness. Andrew Wilkowske's hammy, swaggering Dandini and John Tessier's ardent, agile Ramiro are also noteworthy.
Deployed in ways Rossini never dreamed, the all-male chorus (spiffy in white tie) sounds marvelous. So, for the most part, does the orchestra, which meets the challenge of Christopher Franklin's uncompromising tempos. And all hands seem to relish the opera's most delicious number: the "sextet of stupefaction," a paean to the Italian rolled r.
Larry Fuchsberg writes frequently about music.