City Journal
Heather Mac Donald
Cinderella Man
Javier Camarena’s breakout performance at the Met announces the arrival of a new opera star.
11 July 2014
Photo by Metropolitan Opera

Javier Camarena’s explosive effect on the New York opera stage this last season was a reminder of how infinite are the varieties of musical greatness. Before Camarena’s dazzling performance in Gioachino Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella), few New York opera goers would have complained that the city suffered from any shortage of excellent tenors. Matthew Polenzani, Juan Diego Florez, Lawrence Brownlee, and Joseph Calleja, after all, regularly appear at the Metropolitan Opera, between them offering vocal qualities ranging from ardent sweetness to bright clarion power and throbbing vulnerability. And yet Camarena steps up and reveals what felt like an unprecedented combination of stunning vocal beauty and an utterly endearing stage presence. No wonder he became just the third singer in nearly a century to be granted a mid-performance encore by the Metropolitan management. (The first two were Luciano Pavarotti and Florez.)

Camarena’s triumph as Prince Ramiro in La Cenerentola came only a month after an already acclaimed run at the Met in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Camarena had just departed from New York after his Sonnambula engagement for a visit to his family in Mexico when general manager Peter Gelb called to ask him if he could return and step in to La Cenerentola for an ailing Florez. Camarena agreed.

Physically, the two Latin American tenors could not be more different. The Peruvian Florez is tall, slender, and aristocratic; Camarena is short, rolly-polly, and boyish. Despite his 38 years, Camarena looks like he should be riding his bike around the stage accompanied by his trusty mutt. Yet his voice possesses an overwhelming virility—by virtue not of force but sheer centeredness and command. He sings as naturally as if he were speaking, producing a luxuriantly warm, rounded tone. His entire body moves with the music, radiating a loose-limbed delight in performance.

Fortunately for New York audiences, Camarena found himself surrounded by a peerless cast in a marvelously directed production of one of the greatest comic operas. Rossini’s comedies ask one paramount thing of their singers: Be but half as funny as the music. Unlike parodistic music that strives to amuse by imitating bad composition (examples include Mozart’s unfortunate A Musical Joke and much of P.D.Q. Bach), Rossini’s scores mysteriously embody the comic spirit itself: suave, ironic, and taut to the point of breaking. La Cenerentola’s pianissimos and pauses barely contain their coiled energy; the accelerating crescendos gallop forth with exuberant joy. Instrumental lines play around the foolish characters like laughing putti; when Cenerentola’s avaricious stepfather imagines the onslaught of courtiers offering bribes once he becomes the prince’s father-in-law, the winds dance friskily along with his rollicking patter song.

(Remarkably, Stendhal’s admiring Rossini biography barely mentions the comedies—a sign of changed musical taste—and Berlioz, a master of verbal wit, was driven apoplectic by the Parisian Rossini rage in the 1820s. “Rossini’s melodic cynicism,” Berlioz wrote in his Memoires, “his endless repetition of a single form of cadence, his eternal puerile crescendo and brutal bass drum, exasperated me to such a point that I was blind to the brilliant qualities of his genius even in his masterpiece, the Barber, exquisitely scored though it was.” Berlioz’s criticism would be understandable if applied to many a bel canto tragedy—though not to Rossini’s gorgeous Moses in Egypt—but it is puzzling that he had so little feel for Rossini’s comedies, given his own ironic bent.)

La Cenerentola’s score is not all tongue in cheek, however. Seductive melodies appear for but a few bars during its virtuosic ensemble numbers before dissolving into the next musical idea. Those kaleidoscopic ensembles are the opera’s focal point, drawing in solo lines like leaves in a current pulled toward a waterfall. After Cenerentola begs the Prince to forgive her abusive family during the great Act II sextet “Siete voi!,” a mere two lines of text (“Quelle lagrime mirate/Qual candor, qual bontà!” [Such tears, such goodness]) support a hushed, throbbing barcarolle that recalls the sensuous final trio of Le Comte Ory; Don Magnifico’s next outburst of petulant bluster quickly extinguishes it. Another undulating theme wells up during the Act I quintet “Signore, una parola,” suspended over clipped monosyllables that mark the beat, only to cede to a fusillade of warring insults and importunings.

Cesare Lievi’s stylishly surreal 1997 production embraces the music’s spirit of sophisticated artifice. Just a few battered props, such as a listing three-legged sofa that regularly disgorges its occupants, suggest the fallen state of the baronial household where Cenerentola cleans and cooks for her exploitive stepfather Don Magnifico and two peevish stepsisters. (Librettist Jacopo Ferretti stripped from Charles Perrault’s seventeenth century version of Cinderella the pumpkin carriage, fairy godmother, and midnight deadline [the latter invoked in Lievi’s production by clock images], instead putting at the center of the tale a double disguise: Prince Ramiro and his valet Dandini exchange clothes and identities, so that Ramiro can covertly observe the characters of the female subjects among whom he must choose a bride. The result of Ferretti’s changes is a more human story of folly and forgiveness, lacking much of the fairytale gloss of the Perrault, but also the darkness of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella score.) All the characters in Lievi’s staging, with the exception of Cenerentola and the Prince, have stark white faces and large red dots on their cheeks, invoking commedia dell’arte puppets; the male chorus, in Magritte-inspired bowler hats, rises uncannily from the manorial floorboards in its first entrance while a few members perch like ventriloquist’s dolls at the top of the salon’s cobalt blue walls. Rachelle Durkin and Patricia Risley, in flamboyant ostrich-feather boas and slithery 1920s dresses, gleefully throw themselves into their man-eating-stepsister roles, displaying their legs at the slightest hint of an approaching male, and hurling themselves at their prey if one actually materializes. Baritone Alessandro Corbelli, in a red caftan and fez, is a charmingly pompous Don Magnifico, his plastic features alternating between toadying ingratiation in the presence of the presumed Prince and supercilious contempt when abusing Cenerentola. Though his pleasantly gravelly voice sometimes has a slight wobble, he navigates Rossini’s treacherous syllabic shoals with verve.

Unlike those Rossini tenors for whom disguise releases antic high jinks, Ramiro is largely a straight man, serving as a moral foil to the sometimes cruel behavior around him, a difference presumably reflecting La Cenerentola’s status as dramma giocoso, not opera buffa. Camarena’s physical ease on stage suggests untapped comic potential, but here it was a touching vulnerability to love that was his most striking feature. At one glimpse of Cenerentola (mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato), he was conquered. In their first sweet duet, he inclined toward her with his entire being, his voice wrapping around DiDonato’s with silken care, rising from velvety depths to sunlit clarity. When Don Magnifico callously rejects Cenerentola’s pleas to be taken to the ball, Camarena clenches his fists and closes his eyes in wholly believable fury, barely able to contain his rage in tense, percussive asides. That same immediacy of emotion animated his showpiece aria, “Sì, ritrovarla,” in which he vows to find Cenerentola again after the ball. Camarena rode the thrilling pulse of the number with exhilaration, alternating at high speed between staccato and an elegantly turned legato. For the record, he not only confidently hit his high Cs (without lunging, unlike some tenors), he surpassed them with a robust interpolated D. Such peaks of a singer’s vocal range elicit frenzy from opera fans, but it is musicality that should matter and that provided the true basis for his encore.

Italian baritone Pietro Spagnoli, making his Met debut this year, brought a flawless understanding of caricature to the role of Dandini, the comic center of La Cenerentola. Garbed in the Prince’s tuxedo and blue sash, Spagnoli first enters the stage to a pretentiously galumphing march, his face a mask of condescension and self-importance. Eyeing Don Magnifico and his “valet” glassily, he clumsily drops his top coat, then recovers by imperiously throwing his mustard gloves at Ramiro’s chest. Spagnoli has mobile eyebrows—an important comedic asset—and a resonant bass that is breathtakingly agile in Rossini’s tongue-twisting fast passages. In the opera’s most rambunctious duet, Dandini discloses his true identity to the ever-fawning Don Magnifico, stretching out the revelation of his “important secret” for so long that Magnifico wonders if the “Prince” intends to marry him, rather than one of his daughters. When Dandini finally reveals that he is merely a servant, Don Magnifico erupts in anger and the two set off on a rollicking battle of wills, in which Dandini orders him out of the palace and Don Magnifico refuses to leave. As the orchestra breaks out in a happy canter, they trade rippling Italian future tenses at breakneck speed: “Ci rivedremo/Ci parleremo” (We’ll see about that; we’ll discuss that); “Non partirò / Lei partirà” (I won’t leave; you will leave).

It is a mark of how arresting Camarena’s performance was that it stood out even next to that of his leading lady. Joyce DiDonato has only one peer today in the bel canto repertoire—German soprano Diana Damrau—and her status in the music of the Baroque period is just as exalted. This Met run would be her last Cenerentola, DiDonato had announced, yet she sang it as if it were her first, with winning innocence and heartbreaking poignancy. It was almost unbearable to watch her beg to be allowed to dance at the Prince’s ball, whittling down her request from an hour to half an hour to a quarter hour. DiDonato’s specificity of musical phrasing is invariably stunning; her trills, seemingly tossed off with ease, are crystalline, her vocal ascents like fountains strewing sparkling light. And she shows that it is possible to punctuate each note of Rossini’s staggered coloratura line without the facial gymnastics that make watching Cecilia Bartoli such a strain.

After this season’s first three performances of La Cenerentola, Juan Diego Florez returned to complete the run, including the coveted live HD movie broadcast. He looked pale, with dark circles under his eyes. Comparisons with Camarena were inevitable. Florez’s voice has a much higher timbre, and the brilliance of his tone seemed hard-edged at times after Camarena’s voluptuous warmth. He conspicuously ornamented his lines, introducing some unusual syncopation to “Sì, ritrovarla,” and letting out his ringing upper range like a throttle on a Ferrari. Though Florez’s Comte Ory is uninhibitedly, delightfully silly, here he radiated hauteur and restraint, holding himself ramrod straight much of the time. The Met gave Florez an encore after “Sì, ritrovarla,” too, though without sending the chorus on stage with him (perhaps saving on union overtime). As a result, the repeated orchestral chords which support the rhythmic choral accompaniment sounded harsh and mechanical. Unfairly or not, the encore felt mandatory after the Camarena triumph, and Florez seemed relieved to receive it.

Conductor Fabio Luisi’s tempos steered a middle course between Claudio Abbado’s soporific 1971 recording and the fearless rush of Alberto Zedda’s 2004 performance from the Rossini in Wildbad festival (which includes DiDonato). Abbado’s lugubrious reading is all the more surprising given his quicksilver, hilarious recording of Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims. Though not as headstrong as Zedda’s pacing, Luisi’s interpretation nevertheless conveyed the score’s dazzling dynamism. The ensemble work in the HD performance was more ragged than on previous days, however, falling apart alarmingly during the Act I quintet.

To their discredit, the Metropolitan Orchestra wore big white buttons proclaiming “Union” for the movie broadcast. The Met’s 15 unions are engaged in an ugly battle with management over a new contract. Facing a seemingly intractable gap (despite constant fundraising) between box office receipts and the costs of running the house, Gelb is trying to eliminate some of the more preposterous union work rules, which especially coddle the Met’s overhyped chorus. Two-thirds of the Met’s budget goes to union benefits and salaries, which, for chorus members, can reach $300,000 annually, in addition to nine weeks of paid vacation. It is impossible to overstate the short-sightedness of classical music unions, who seem to believe that management is sitting on some vast trove of wealth from undisclosed ticket sales. This year’s La Cenerentola and its break-out star were a reminder of how much is at stake in the Metropolitan Opera’s continued ability to mount opera according to the highest standards of art.

Heather Mac Donald is a City Journal contributing editor.

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