The title of Rossini's opera La Cenerentola, which opened at Seattle Opera last weekend, translates literally as "Cinderella." But I'll continue to refer to it as La Cenerentola because this is not the Cinderella story with whom American audiences are familiar.
The bones are there: the lonely and put-upon girl in the ashes by the fire, the wicked stepsisters, the prince (eventually). But beyond, that my 10-year-old daughter refused to acknowledge that this was the old Cinderella story. She's right, and that's a good thing.
In Rossini's version the wicked stepmother is replaced by a vain and greedy stepfather, the fairy godmother is replaced by a wise old man, there's no magic or glass slipper, and most importantly the prince trades places with his valet and spends most of the performance as a servant. He wins Cinderella's heart on merit, which makes her a much more self-reliant, self-assured, and relatable character. My daughter liked her far more than the Cinderella of the movie: "She's someone I could hang out with." High praise indeed.
Seattle Opera is hoping that this production can be an opportunity for kids to get interested in opera (see below for details about a great deal for kids at the January 20 matinee) and I'm inclined to agree that this is probably a good first operatic option for kids. With a couple of strong caveats and recommendations, I would recommend this show for at least ages 8 and up.
First, this show is long. The first act alone is 90 minutes and the total running time including intermission is 3 hours. I have lots of advice about reserving a fortifying cookie in advance at the concession stand in the lower lobby and not drinking too much before going so you don't have to wait in the long bathroom lines but if you've been to The Nutcracker you likely already know this.
Second, it's really helpful if kids are old enough to read on their own so they can follow the story. Not only will they stay engaged with the action on stage but they will get a lot of the jokes in the libretto. The great value in La Cenerentola as an entry point for kids into opera is that it's a very funny show, and not in the bawdy sexual way many comic operas are.
The best, and funniest, part of the show for my daughter, and the whole audience judging from the laughter and applause, were the mice. They don't sing but they are a constant presence on stage dancing, posing, and manipulating the sets in a way that delighted the audience time and time again.
As for the rest of the cast, Brett Polegato as the valet, Dandini, impersonating the prince is particularly entertaining. The wicked stepsisters, played by Dana Pundt and Sarah Larsen, in their gigantic bright pink and yellow wigs, have some wonderful vocal comedy as does Valerian Ruminski as the stepfather Don Magnifico. He was actually booed by the audience (good naturedly) during the curtain call in appreciation for his villainous turn.
Opera in general relies on a certain amount of melodrama and La Cenerentola not only plays it for laughs but embraces the broad emotion to good effect. If your kids are interested in the arts and you think they're ready to give opera a try you should definitely consider La Cenerentola.
If you go ...
Family Day performance, Sunday, January 20, 2 p.m. At this special matinee of Rossini's opera, kids' tickets can be purchased for only $15 (four kids' tickets for each adult ticket). The curtain will stay open during intermission for a peek at what’s going on behind the scenes as props are reset. An intermission narrator will describe it all and interview some of the performers. Kids can meet performers, try on costumes, and more.
Other performance dates: January 16, 19, 20, 23, 25, and 26, at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: Buy tickets at seattleopera.org or 206-389-7676 or 800-426-1619.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): Elise Bakketun, Alan Alabastro
About the author: John Kubalak is a writer, teacher, volunteer coordinator, raconteur, and scalawag. He does not publish science fiction under the pseudonym Jonathan Black but he does publish a monograph on fatherhood, The Eclectic Dad. He has a son, a daughter, a beautiful wife (and a little dog too!) who are adorable, maddening, zany, and brilliant all at the same time.