Clapham Opera Festival aims to offer a taste of opera to the folk of South London – its slogan is ‘opera for the many, not the few’. Judging by the mixed audience that saw La Cenerentola, Rossini’s version of Cinderella, on 16 November, Marie Soulier, the festival’s redoubtable founder, is on to a winner.
Staging a Rossini opera in a church with no stage and with ‘echo-ey’ acoustics would be a daunting prospect to anyone without the enthusiasm of Ms Soulier and her crew. The abridged version performed here – with seven singers and a pianist – overcomes the drawbacks with some style. For no obvious reason other than Ms Soulier’s enthusiasm for North American arts and crafts, the opera is set in the Wild West and Don Magnifico is a saloon owner down on his luck. Rich rancher, Don Ramiro, is looking for a bride and hears that one of Don Magnifico’s three daughters would be a worthy wife. The rest of the plot is too well known to need explanation.
Rossini’s operas only flourish in the hands of singers with the technique to do justice to the florid and demanding score. All the singers involved here – but especially Clare Gigho as Angelina and Arthur Swan as Don Ramiro – seem totally at home with the demands of Rossini’s music. Clare Gigho is particularly compelling in the Cinderella role – she has the rare combination of a very rich mezzo sound with all the lightness of touch needed for bel canto singing. Arthur Swan does not have the most powerful of tenor voices but the sweetness of tone he produces, especially in the higher register, is splendid.
It was a special treat to hear the celebrated Mark Beesley adding the comic touches to the role of Don Magnifico in this setting. He seems to be holding his rich baritone in check, maybe to blend it with the younger singers who surround him, but his trios with the disconcertingly attractive “ugly sisters” – Chloe de Backer and Christina Petrou – kept the comic pot boiling. They had a ball, demonstrating that you can be ugly in behaviour even if beautiful in appearance. Nicholas Merryweather and Ricardo Panela complete an excellent cast of singers and Philip Voldman’s stylish piano offered the singers just the support they needed.
It would be harsh to criticise the production given the very limited resources that director Pedro Ribeiro had to work with but the decision to stage the action down the long side of the church and not at the front before the choir stall – I assume for acoustic reasons – created some visual problems for the audience who had to track entrances and exits, heads swivelling like spectators at a tennis match. And I did want Angelina to take off the stetson hat she wore, at least for the party scene. But the humour certainly worked and the audience clearly loved the whole thing.
To put on a Rossini opera – even in this abridged form – in a local church in a festival setting and to reach such a high standard is a real achievement. Clapham may not be Glyndebourne but it’s a great deal more accessible for some of us. Let’s hope the opera festival becomes an autumn fixture.