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'Cinderella': There's always a party at Chez Rossini

Perspective: That joie de vivre stands out in the comic opera 'Cinderella,' which the composer dashed off in three inspired weeks when he was just 25 and which L.A. Opera is reviving starting this week.

March 16, 2013|By Tim Page
  • Portrait of Gioachino Rossini (Pesaro, 1792-Paris, 1792), Italian composer.
Portrait of Gioachino Rossini (Pesaro, 1792-Paris, 1792), Italian composer. (Dea / A. Dagli Orti / De Agostini…)

Inevitably, our tastes change as we grow older. Most of the pop songs that once served as anthems are now exercises in nostalgia, calling up happy ghosts rather than anything new and urgent. The dense romantic adventure novel that we swore by in our teens no longer holds our interest, but we can lose ourselves in the hitherto-impenetrable nuances and shadows of Henry James. The sentimental sweetness of Charles Chaplin remains affecting, but we are increasingly grateful for the stoniness of Buster Keaton and the petty but hilarious cruelties of W.C. Fields.

And sometimes there are surprises. Had I told my 20-year-old self that the day would come when Rossini's comic operas would mean more than the vast majority of the classical repertory, that kid would have scoffed and cranked up his latest recording of Mahler's 6th.

But I was a lapel-shaker in those days, out for Heavy Meaning, Cosmic Angst and the Sky Opening to Reveal Secret Truths. It would never have occurred to me that brilliant and opulent light music such as "La Cenerentola" (Cinderella), charged throughout with the sublime and silly mystery of being alive, might ultimately seem more durable and just possibly more profound.

Now for the first time since 2000, Los Angeles Opera is reviving "Cinderella," which the composer tossed off in three inspired weeks at age 25, for six performances starting March 23. James Conlon will conduct, with Kate Lindsey and Ketevan Kemoklidze divvying up performances of the title role and René Barbera as Prince Ramiro. The production, by the Spanish director Joan Font, has already been presented in Europe, Canada, Houston and Seattle.

Think of "Cinderella" not as just another night of musical theater but rather as a mad soiree.

Consider it an evening overseen by a host who long ago accepted the tragic aspects of life (with appropriate regret) but in the meantime will serve you good food and choice wines as you surround yourself with civilized and attractive company and watch the dizzy young lovers who are in the process of finding each other, all set to a musical accompaniment that is unfailingly stylish and pleasurable. There's always a party at Chez Rossini.

From the beginning, Rossini stood apart. Born in 1792 on a date that occurs only every four years, Feb. 29, Gioachino Rossini was still "officially" a teenager when he died in 1868 (a celebratory bicentennial concert at New York's Lincoln Center in 1992 was billed as a "50th birthday celebration." By the time he was 25 (by the standard calendar), he had become the most popular opera composer of his era.

For years, Rossini was best remembered for his overtures and one full-length opera, "The Barber of Seville" (1816), yet another of his three-week compositional wonders.

In the last few decades, other operas have been heard increasingly, especially "Cinderella" and "The Italian Girl in Algiers." His comedies remain his most familiar works, although "William Tell" and "Semiramide" are sumptuous and serious. Rossini even wrote his own version of "Otello," which lacks the dramatic urgency of Verdi's later opera but is suffused with beautiful and effective arias and ensembles.

At the height of his career, in his late 30s, Rossini abruptly "retired" from composition. The happy legend has been that he made his money, exercised his muse and just wanted to relax in his beautiful Paris town house, where he remained a vital part of European cultural life until his death.

The truth is somewhat more complicated. Rossini seems to have suffered from gonorrhea for much of his later life; increasingly, he was also prone to deep depressions. And he didn't really stop composing: He created a large catalog of songs, piano works and occasional chamber pieces, which he referred to collectively as "Sins of My Old Age."

There is a great deal of wonderful music here, and such compositions as "Tarentelle pur sang" and "Memento Homo" ought to be adopted as encore pieces by more pianists. Finally, Rossini wrote a refreshingly eccentric and (the word applies) unique "Petite Messe Solennelle" (Little Solemn Mass), which in its original form was scored for small chorus, two pianos and a tiny organ-like instrument called the harmonium.

What Gore Vidal said about American novelist Dawn Powell applies to Rossini as well: He looked at life with a "bright Petronian neutrality."

To be sure, he accepted the world pretty much as he found it, played by its rules and was richly rewarded, and he passed on those rewards to younger composers as a generous mentor. He had few pretensions about himself: He sought to entertain rather than to break down the walls. His villains are rarely demonic, his heroes have no halos, and he maintains a steady, often amused gaze that is unusual in the grandiloquent world of opera.

Rossini once summed up his philosophy bluntly: "Eating, loving, singing and digesting are, in truth, the four acts of the comic opera known as life, and they pass like bubbles of a bottle of Champagne," he said. "Whoever lets them break without having enjoyed them is a complete fool." And on another occasion — "Every kind of music is good, except the boring kind." Certainly, few will be bored by "Cinderella."

calendar@latimes.com

Page is a professor of music and journalism at USC. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1997 while with the Washington Post.

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