The Baltimore Vocal Arts Foundation debuted this past weekend with a little known operetta, Cendrillon by Pauline Viardot.
Cendrillon is a French re-imaging of the classic Cinderella story. Written by Pauline Viardot and performed in Paris in 1904, Cendrillon has fallen by the wayside over a century. But recently, it's been enjoying a bit of a renaissance with productions on both coasts of the United States occurring over the past ten years. Baltimore Vocal Arts Foundation performed the work with a brand new (and in my opinion), hilarious English translation by founder and Garcia scholar, Dr. Robyn Stevens. This new organization aims to give students and inexperienced performers the opportunity to develop their talents and get working experience in a transitional environment: not quite as safe as a school production, but not as hard core as a professional opera company.
Viardots' Cendrillon takes the original Cinderella story and turns it on its head. Marie, better known as Cendrillon(Cinderella), is not the stepdaughter of a wicked stepmother, but the illegitimate daughter of Baron Pictordu, a former grocer who lied about being aristocracy to marry money. He scorns Cendrillon as evidence of his less than pristine past. Instead of evil step sisters, Marie has half sisters who use their father's disregard for Cendrillon as an excuse to abuse her and treat her as a servant. The Prince is not some fop who's throwing a ball just to find a wife and get it over with; but as a master of disguise, Prince Charming has been casing the neighborhoods of the blue bloods, finding out which girls are sincere and which are social climbers. Barigoule, the Prince's royal chamberlain, has history with the supposed Baron Pictordu, which may or may not interfere with his ability to help the Prince with his charade of exchanged identities. And rounding out the cast, Le Feé, the fairy Godmother, is not only a fashion maven, but also has a way with animals and gourds.
In the Sunday performance at Baltimore Theatre Project, Taleesha Scott was Cendrillon. Her sweet, soulful voice was paired with expressive and convincing acting – nervous and frenetic around her abusive family, excited and jittery upon the arrival of her fairy godmother, and jubilant as she finally gets to be with the Prince. This is an extraordinary vocal talent, and I deeply hope I get to hear more from this truly unique musician. Playing Prince Charming was Andrew Spady, who hit a nice balance between aloof, annoyed, and love struck depending on who he was interacting with. He and Ms. Scott worked and sang well together. Spady had a pleasant, if somewhat typical, tenor voice. He sounded good, he looked good, he was worth the ticket.
Nearly stealing the show were Michael Rainbow and Juliana Marin. Michael Rainbow made the most of his role as the Prince's chamberlain, Barigoule, sporting a hilarious fake French accent, reminiscent of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and shooting wise cracks and one liners at every opportunity, as if his arias weren't chuckle-worthy enough. Juliana Marin played the sweet, kooky fairy godmother, La Feé. Her acting was a little unsure at times, but her singing ranked a close second to Cendrillon's in my book. Marin's voice is lovely, even though her technique is not entirely solid.
The one sour-ish note came in the form of the step sisters, played by Dwan Hayes and Tyson Upham. Lethargy and apathy were the orders of the day, contrasting strangely with the frenetic staging in some of their scenes. Even worse, they were vocally the weakest of their cast-mates. Tyson Upham as Maguelone, was hard to hear, while Dwan Hayes as Armelinde, tended to belt. The result was a rough, often flat sound that jarred with otherwise vocally seamless ensembles. In what I've dubbed "The Quack Heard 'Round the World," Miss Hayes hit a very loud and jarringly flat note in the second act ensemble. Both singers seemed distracted throughout their performance, giving a flat delivery of what may have been very funny roles. To say I was underwhelmed is an understatement.
Daniel Gorham seemed to follow the lead of the sisters when it came to acting - a little lazy, a little unmotivated - but he got better as the show went on. Regardless of the acting, he'd still get a pass for his gorgeous singing. A full, resonant baritone voice held its own in his solo's, while blending beautifully in the chorus'. His best scenes were the ones where he and Barigoule got to play off one another, culminating in a fabulous moment where they dueled with their canes while discussing their shared past and the quality of gingerbread the Baron used to sell.
The unsung hero of the performance was pianist Michael Angelucci who kept playing despite sweltering heat. (If the venue had air-conditioning it was well hidden or perhaps prehistoric – like a pile of ice blown by a fan.) Did I like this opera? Hmmm. A little part of me would like to hear the music performed with a small orchestra – but no. Viardot wrote it for piano and I think in the end, piano is what works best. It's a small, charming opera, meant for small, charming spaces to be performed in. And I really doubt an orchestra could've been fit into Baltimore Theatre Project while still leaving space for the actors to, well, act.