A Cinderella story Manitoba Opera tackles familiar themes of Rossini’s La Cenerentola with chic, 1950s aesthetic
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In simply speaking about La Cenerentola, Lizzy Hoyt can’t help but get emotional. Since her childhood in Edmonton, the mezzo soprano has loved the story of the young woman who wrests herself out from beneath the wickedness of her ugly stepsisters whose grossness is not physical, but spiritual.
● Centennial Concert Hall, 555 Main St.
● Nov. 12 (7:30 p.m.), 15 (7 p.m.) and 18 (7:30 p.m.)
● Tickets starting from $70 ($47 for students) plus fees, tickets.mbopera.ca
It’s a story that’s been told in every culture that tells stories, which is to say a version of Cinderella has likely been rendered in every language from English to Spanish to Swahili. There is no corner of the world in which the dream of the ugly duckling hasn’t been dreamt.
For Hoyt, who is making her debut as Cenerentola on the Manitoba Opera’s mainstage this month, the lingua franca is the rhythmic Italian bel canto style of Gioachino Rossini, who composed the music for La Cenerentola over 200 years ago in Rome.
Long before she began her preparation for the role, Hoyt, who started her career as a Celtic folk singer and violinist, was familiar with the narrative. “I definitely had the VHS,” she says in her dressing room at the Centennial Concert Hall.
But La Cenerentola isn’t exactly the same as the Disney story, as Hoyt learned during her year of solo preparation for the titular role, which begins not on stage but at a desk, and not with a microphone but with an Italian-to-English dictionary at her side. The work of an opera singer is to do much more than sing opera.
Hoyt painstakingly translated the buoyant libretto of Jacopo Ferretti, which itself was based on the French Cendrillon by Charles Perreault. “It really has to be word for word,” says Hoyt. If her character sings to her father-in-law to let her go, he had better be holding on to her, she says.
After the translation, Hoyt had to nail the pronunciation — no easy task in Rossini’s upbeat, humour-filled style, which bounces up and down like bippity-boppity-boo. “Just to wrap your tongue around all of the words is quite a challenge,” says Hoyt, who quickly gives a sampling of a Rossini quintet that sounds like someone clicked fast-forward on her larynx.
Once she nailed the elocution and pronunciation, Hoyt had to then, of course, learn to sing the words, but also understand the meaning behind Rossini’s 200-year-old choices: why is this part fast, why is this part slow, which emotion should this line evoke, and why is this being sung now? Figuring out a dramatic reason for the notes selected has been one of the most important parts of her preparation, she says. “He isn’t just choosing notes for the sake of choosing notes.”
Hoyt also must train her body for the physicality of the opera, which requires her voice to ascend and descend across a two-octave range, carrying the melodies from a low-F to a high-B. The caloric expenditure is shockingly high, she says, as is the strain on the voice; so as not to collapse during a performance, Hoyt does high intensity interval training during her year of solo work.
She also does vocal training, which isn’t always pretty. It’s a lot of repetition and a lot of trial and error. Thankfully, her next-door neighbours in St. Boniface don’t mind. “They can hear me, and they tell me they enjoy it,” she says.
After the solo preparation, which differs for each performer depending on their preferences and roles, performers must then combine their individual efforts under the watchful eye of the director. For La Cenerentola, the eye belongs to Rob Herriot, who oversaw a previous production of the classic tale in Edmonton in 2017.
“The biggest challenge in this show is that it is not what Disney produced,” says Herriot. There’s no fairy godmother, no pumpkin, and in the place of the glass slipper are a pair of bracelets which serve as the link of love between prince and princess. Going against audience expectation, while acknowledging it, makes for an interesting theatrical framing strategy.
Rather than dressing the characters in period wear from the Middle Ages, the cast of La Cenerentola will be dressed in the sharp garb of the mid-20th-century modern era, in costumes styled by Deanna Finnman, on loan from the Edmonton Opera.
When Finnman suggested to Herriot the 1950s as a suitable era for the story, the director was initially aghast. “I thought, ‘Oh my god. Not poodle skirts and Fonzie,’” Herriot says. “And she said, ‘No, no, no. It’s Italian haute couture.’”
The wardrobe is huge: there are three costume changes in the first 10 minutes, says Herriot, and the ugly stepsisters go on a huge shopping spree, packing their closets to the gills.
“The 1950s were an iconic period in fashion history, where the appearance told the story,” the director says. “It’s seen by some as an innocent reset from the war years.”
To echo the costuming, set designer Sheldon Johnson dipped into the mid-century-modern styles of architecture, which will look familiar to Winnipeg audiences, readers of Dwell magazine and scrollers of interior-design Pinterest. The sets, says Herriot, are a true highlight.
Hoyt, who moved to Winnipeg seven years ago to train with acclaimed vocal coach Tracy Dahl, is effusive in her praise of the cast and crew, who made the best of a difficult situation when the pandemic delayed the initially targeted April debut of La Cenerentola.
Spending more time with the work before performing it live turned out to be a bit of a blessing, Hoyt says. It allowed her to get more attached to the story, which means so much to so many.
This isn’t just talk: When reciting her favourite canzonetta from the show, tears ball up in the corners of her eyes when thinking about her character’s kindness, which wins out in the end.
The waterworks can’t happen on stage, she says. “My job is to make the audience feel that way instead.”
She wipes her eyes. “It’s just so easy to get choked up.”
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.