The action is transferred to Hollywood in the 1930s.
Madison Opera's closing production this season is something entitled Cinderella. It opened Friday night in Overture Hall. If you close your eyes, you hear Rossini's wonderful comic opera Cenerentola, essentially complete, and in the original Italian. If you open your eyes, you see a wildly incoherent spectacle with a new plot (and frequently distorted surtitles).
Let's start with the reliable part, the music. Madison Opera was able to assemble a truly splendid cast. As the title character, mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack is simply dazzling, her beautiful voice, strong projection, and confident vocal pyrotechnics providing an anchor for the performance. Not far behind, as Prince Ramiro, is an old Madisonian, tenor Gregory Schmidt, his ringing voice now matured, finely honed, and assured. Another Madisonian, Jamie Van Eyck, joins Amy Mahoney as the two nasty stepsisters, Tisbe and Clorinda.
The baritone role of the valet Dandini can sometimes steal the show, and Daniel Belcher comes pretty close to that. The role of Don Magnifico, Cinderella's stepfather, really calls for a basso buffo: baritone Steven Condy lacks the bass coloration, but he certainly is a master of the buffo element, while baritone Alan Dunbar manages the role of Ramiro's mentor, Alidoro, quite nicely.
A full-bodied male chorus fills out the team, and in the pit, artistic director John DeMain keeps a firm grip on Rossini's orchestra.
But then there is the unreliable part. The production was conceived by Garnett Bruce, who professes to deplore excessive intervention by "concept" directors with wild ideas, but who has imposed exactly that here. The action is transferred to Hollywood in the 1930s (though much of the costumes and decor are really 1940s and 1950s). Rossini's wonderful overture is misused for a pantomime setting up the premise of A Star is Born, a premise quickly muddled into a romantic plot. (Is Ramiro a director looking for a fresh star or a prince looking for a bride? We are never made sure.) All kinds of period cinematic touches are piled in, and each act ends with an attempt to mimic Busby Berkeley spectacles.
If that is the show Bruce was aiming for, he should have hired a composer to write a new Broadway score for it, rather than pirate an existing piece of lyric theater. All this silliness has nothing to do with Rossini's opera, and adds no real meaning to it. It is done apparently on the theory that the opera needs to be made "relevant" to today's audience - 1930s Hollywood is relevant? - through extra layers of "entertainment."
The pity of it is that Bruce is clearly a skilled director. He is a master of details, plotting dramatic movements consistently to fit Rossini's music. His could be a wonderful realization of Rossini's comic genius if he did not choose to impose cheap tricks on it.
Lively, lavish, audience-wowing, "entertaining"? Sure, but a wasted opportunity to do scenic as well as musical justice to a great comic opera in its first presentation by this company.