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Monday, January 22, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Frothy `LA Cenerentola' Serves Up All Sorts Of Fun

Seattle Times Music Critic

Music review "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella"), by Rossini, in Seattle Opera production; Opera House, last Saturday night, through Feb. 1 (389-7676).

Those who thought Seattle Opera's recent "Carmen" was too heavy in the sex-and-violence department are in luck this time around: the new "La Cenerentola" is a lighter-than-air frothy comedy that's also one of the funniest shows the company has ever staged.

No sex (unless you count a chaste and modest embrace).

No violence (except for the occasional pratfall).

Just an enormous amount of larceny, in which scene after scene is stolen by the outrageous wiles of several cast members. When you have Julian Patrick, as Don Magnifico, jockeying with Robert Orth, as Dandini, and Seattle's new queen of comedy - Sally Wolf - elbowing in on the action, you have a show with a high hilarity quotient.

The production features no less than two Seattle Opera Artists of the Year (Wolf, in 1992, and Orth, in 1993), testifying to the popularity of a cast that also includes the evil mainspring of the entire Wagnerian "Ring" (Patrick, who sang the role of Alberich here). Thanks to the shrewd and deftly comic staging of Linda Brovsky, who worked minor miracles with the storybook sets created originally for L'Opera de Montreal, the 3 1/2 hours of opera zipped along with an alacrity rare even in Rossini.

Canadian-born conductor Yves Abel, making his Seattle Opera debut with this production, also was responsible for the breathless pace of the performance, keeping the tempo bubbling right along (though there were a few opening-night coordination problems, unsurprising in an opera that alternates recitative with fast-paced "patter" arias).

Unlike many familiar versions of the Cinderella story, "La Cenerentola" has a wicked stepfather along with the requisite wicked stepsisters; this production makes the whole package a bit more wicked than usual. It isn't until the very last that Clorinda (Wolf) overcomes her petulant disdain for Cenerentola (Laura Polverelli, who will share that role with the Silver Series' Melanie Sonnenberg Friday and again Feb. 1).

No one can top Patrick as the blustering stepfather Don Magnifico, the kind of guy who runs the gamut from vanity to obsequiousness in a twinkling. Not unless it's Orth as the scheming valet Dandini; he plays this role with the same outrageous glee that George Hamilton once brought to Zorro. Whether he is prying Don Magnifico out of a chair with his own walking stick, or soft-shoeing his way across the stage, Orth wields complete control over almost every scene in which he appears (and that's most of them).

Jan Opalach, a casting coup in the relatively small role of Alidoro, conveys a puckish dignity that propels the plot forward at crucial stages.

The evening's big surprise is Wolf, who joins mezzo-soprano Louise Marley (as Tisbe) in bringing alive two of the most . . . well, amazing stepsisters ever to hit the opera stage.

Wolf's usual lot, as a lyric coloratura soprano, is to die tragically at the end of the opera. What a surprise to discover a gifted comedienne beneath those tear ducts. She and Marley flaunt their baroque-skyscraper hairdos and their wedding-cake ball gowns as if they were broadswords. There's more bridling around Don Magnifico's household than at Churchill Downs, and the stepsisters raise simpering and smirking to an art form.

Laura Polverelli, making her North American debut in the title role, is an appealingly fragile heroine whose voice is particularly warm in the lower register, and who traverses the florid passagework of her arias with accuracy. She is a convincing actress, too; her scenes with the prince, Don Ramiro (Gregory Kunde, alternating with Mark Thomsen in the role) set just the right tone. Kunde, who sails the high C's (and even a D) with remarkable agility, is stylistically right on target, both vocally and dramatically. The whole cast seems to be having so much fun up there that you long to grab a costume and join them.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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