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SCRUTINY | RCM'S La Cecchina Not Exactly A Cakewalk

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Kendra Dyck as Sandrina and Asitha Tennekoon as the Marchese Photo: Nicola Betts
Kendra Dyck as Sandrina and Asitha Tennekoon as the Marchese Photo: Nicola Betts

Royal Conservatory. La cecchina (La buona figliuola) by Niccolò Piccinni. Glenn Gould School vocal program and Royal Conservatory Orchestra. Leslie Dala (music director). Marilyn Gronsdal (stage director). At Koerner Hall. March 15.

Showcases Promising Voices and Youthful Enthusiasm

For opera fans interested in discovering voices of tomorrow, this week is a bonanza. Both the U of T Faculty of Music Opera Division and the RCM Glenn Gould School are staging their spring opera productions.

For the GGS, it’s the rarely performed Italian opera, La cecchina (La buona figliuola), the best-known work by Niccolò Piccinni (1728-1800). Born in Bari, Piccinni was an exponent of the Neapolitan school, and a rival to Christoph Willibald Gluck. While the latter was credited with stylistic reform in French opera, Piccinni was very much the traditionalist, composing in a conventional and well-loved style for its time.

Productions of La cecchina can be occasionally found in opera houses, particularly in Italy, although more frequently in the conservatories. The work is surprisingly long, lasting nearly three hours with an intermission — a lot of singing for the eight principals! While the vocal writing is grateful, it’s not a cakewalk, with plenty of challenging moments.  For the curious, you can find several videos and audio clips of this opera on Youtube. There are several commercial recordings featuring famous singers, including in the title role the marvelous Italian soprano Serena Farnocchia (who has sung at the COC) who recorded it for the Bongiovanni label.

Jonelle Sills as La Cecchina (Photo: Nicola Betts)
Jonelle Sills as La Cecchina (Photo: Nicola Betts)

La cecchina premiered in Rome in 1760, by an all-male cast. An opera buffa with a libretto by Carlo Goldoni and based on Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela, the central theme of this piece is conflict of love and social class. The Marchese is in love with Cecchina, a garden maid. Cavaliere Armidoro, the fiancé of the Marchese’s sister, Lucinda, refuses to marry her because of this social transgression by her brother. Lucinda begs her brother to end his romance with Cecchina.

Meanwhile, Cecchina has to deal with an unwanted suitor in Mengotto, not to mention having her hands full with two jealous and gossipy co-workers, Sandrina and Paoluccia, who try to sabotage Cecchina at every turn. With upward social mobility out of the question, Cecchina is doomed to a life of drudgery and servitude…but wait!  Out of the blue, Tagliaferro, a German solider, has been searching for Cecchina and reveals that she is of noble birth. So, Cecchina and the Marchese can tie the knot and everything turns out great. I’m omitting a ton of plot twists and turns, enough material for a full season of soup opera, but you get the idea!

Lynn Isnar as the Marchesa with Jocelyn Fralick as Count Armidoro (Photo: Nicola Betts)
Lynn Isnar as the Marchesa with Jocelyn Fralick as Count Armidoro (Photo: Nicola Betts)

If the story — and the music — reminds you of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, you are not far off. I kept hearing snippets of Handel at one moment and Mozart the other. These quaint opera plots with the deus ex machina devices won’t pass muster in 2017, but in 1760, it was all the rage. For this production, it’s been updated to the 1960s. Stage director Marilyn Gronsdal has created a new character, The Writer — presumably Samuel Richardson who wrote the original novel, Pamela — into the proceedings. He’s silent throughout act one. In act two, he becomes Tagliaferro to bring with him the news about Cecchina, which serves to resolve the story. It’s a cute twist to the story — at the very end, Cecchina goes and rips up the writer’s manuscript, as if to say — “Don’t mess with our destiny!”  Gronsdal also favours slapstick, not inappropriate for an opera buffa, especially one that is, frankly, overlong.  This opera, however pleasant, needs some judicious cutting in my book.

At the opening last evening, Cecchina was sung by soprano Jonelle Sills, a fine Pauline Viardot Cendrillon last fall. Here she acted well and sang with a big, rich, warm sound. I would have preferred a less drab-looking costume on her, even though she’s a servant. GGS graduate/tenor Asitha Tennekoon returned to sing the Marchese with bright tone. As the two jealous maids, mezzo Lillian Brooks (Paoluccia) and Kendra Dyck (Sandrina) hit the mark with their comic routines. Soprano Lynn Isnar (Marchesa) met the challenge of having to sing three arias, including a vengeance aria with some impossible coloratura. She was well partnered by soprano Jocelyn Fralick, in a trouser role as her fiancé Armidoro. Baritone Kjel Erickson was very funny as the comically over-the-top Mengotto, Cecchina’s unwanted suitor. Most impressive was bass-baritone Bradley Christensen as Tagliaferro and doubling as the Writer. Given they are all young artists, their voices are all works in progress. Not the finished products at this stage, but every one of them show promise.

While bare-bones and functional – this is a budget-wise student production after all – the production is quite clever, with plenty of little details, like the re-arranging of the paper flowers to form a heart and little touches like that. Conductor Leslie Dala gave an energetic, well-paced reading of the score, and the RCM Orchestra musicians responded well to him, playing wonderfully. The audience gave the artists a warm ovation at the end.

La cecchina repeats this Friday, March 17, 7:30 p.m. at Koerner Hall.

For more REVIEWS, click HERE.

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Joseph So

Joseph So

Joseph So is Professor Emeritus at Trent University and Associate Editor of Opera Canada.He is also a long-time contributor to La Scena Musicale and Opera (London, UK). His interest in music journalism focuses on voice, opera as well as symphonic and piano repertoires. He appears regularly as a panel member of the Big COC Podcast.He has co-edited a book, Opera in a Multicultural World: Coloniality, Culture, Performance, published by Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group).
Joseph So
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