Tuesday, June 14, 2005

It’s frequently Washington’s lesser-known performing arts companies that offer the niftiest surprises. Which brings us to the Summer Opera Theatre Company’s new production of Jules Massenet’s “Cendrillon,” currently running at the Hartke Theater on the campus of Catholic University.

Brimming with innocent charm and romantic almost to a fault, this is delightful summer fare for audiences of all ages.

“Cendrillon” is the French word for “Cinderella,” the timeless fairy tale first published by Charles Perrault in 1697. Parents have read generations of young children to sleep with variations on this story of a kindly young girl who quietly prevails over her wicked stepmother and evil stepsisters to enchant a handsome prince and become his bride. With the help, of course, of her fairy godmother and a pair of glass slippers. If anything, the Summer Opera has improved on the original with its inspired decision to move the story to contemporary Washington, transferring Cinderella’s family to the diplomatic corps and recasting Prince Charming as the eligible bachelor son of the American president.

Sunday’s opening was not quite perfect. The diction of the chorus left something to be desired. The wicked sisters were barely audible in the first act. The Fairy Godmother booted a short passage or two — and the ballroom dancing was a bit pedantic.

But these are minor quibbles, more than offset by this production’s many positives. Christopher Ash’s imaginative sets were just enough to set the proper mood, with Act II’s gigantic clock proving particularly amusing. The largely student orchestra under the baton of H. Teri Murai played sensitively and well. And director David Grindle, working against all current fashion, crafted a warm morality tale where love and decency win out in the end because they should.

But the main reason this production sparkled was the exceptional, emotional performance of soprano Maureen Francis as Lisette, aka Cinderella. As her stepmother and garishly overdressed stepsisters took off for the President’s ball, Miss Francis stepped shyly from the wings clad in blue jeans and an oversized Washington Nationals sweatshirt, immediately winning the audience’s collective heart. Awkwardly endearing with a sweet, silvery voice to match, her innate goodness proved impossible to resist.

Yet it would have been difficult for Miss Francis to sustain her performance without an equally compelling romantic partner. No problem here. Tenor Rolando-Michael Sanz inhabited the role of the love struck prince/first son with a huge but sensitive voice framed with impeccable diction. As an added bonus, there was real chemistry between this couple — not always opera’s strongest suit. Together, Miss Francis and Mr. Sanz made their charming, idealized romance come passionately alive.

Baritone Eugene Galvin was surprisingly effective as Cendrillon’s beleaguered dad, who nonetheless comes through for his cruelly mistreated daughter in the end. Coloratura soprano Hilary Ryon executed the difficult role of the Fairy Godmother, for the most part with surprising ease. And with mezzo Laura Zuiderveen brilliantly cast as a battle-axe of a stepmother — aided and abetted by quarrelsome sopranos Jennifer Jellings and Kristin Green as the nasty stepsisters — one couldn’t have asked for better or more comical villains.


WHO: The Summer Opera Theatre Company

WHAT: Jules Massenet’s “Cendrillon”

WHERE: Hartke Theatre, 3801 Harewood Road NE, Washington

WHEN: Tonight and Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 2:30 p.m.

TICKETS AND INFORMATION: Call 202/319-4000 or visit online at www.summeropera.org


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