In 2017, the New Generation Festival was founded in Florence by three British citizens – Maximilian Fane, Roger Granville and Frankie Parham. Usually taking place in the gardens of Palazzo Corsini, in the last days of August, the festival offers classical concerts and opera, but also jazz and pop music, and even drama. As its name implies, the aim is to provide a tribune for a new generation, by giving priority to less than thirty-year-old artists. In 2017, the NGF’s first opera was Donizetti’s Elisir d’amore, and the two following years were devoted to Mozart, with Don Giovanni in 2018 and Nozze di Figaro in 2019. One might have expected Così fan tutte to follow this year to complete the Da Ponte trilogy, but such was not the case.
In this chaotic year, it is in itself a miracle that the festival did happen. To be officially approved, it had to leave its usual setting, Palazzo Corsini (except for midday concerts by members of its young singers’ academy), in order to be hosted by Palazzo Pitti. The Boboli gardens have been closed to the public for some days, probably for rehearsals in the “Teatro delle Colonne”, a temporary structure built in the Prato delle colonne, at the southernmost tip of the gardens. In accordance with social distancing, this large open-air space is the only one which can accommodate a reasonably numerous audience, with chairs at one-metre intervals, the orchestra rather widely dispersed, and the singers on stage avoiding close contact (without going as far as the strict process implemented in Madrid for recent performances of Traviata).
The spectators can access the gardens from 6.40 onwards ; at 7, they receive a musical welcome in the Ammanati courtyard ; at 7.30, a pre-concert is offered in front of the orangery (or “lemonry”, as it is called here). At 8, the walking audience are invited to go take their seats for the performance of main concert at 8.30.
For the opening night, on Wednesday 20 August, La Cenerentola is the first work by Rossini ever performed by the Festival. After the two Mozart years, we are back to the 19th century, and to the Italian repertoire ; in spite of a rather strong British presence (nothing surprising, considering the nationality of the founders), one may suppose that the Italian spectators are pleased to attend works performed in their mother tongue. As to the composers selected so far, their works do not overtax the powers of those young singers favoured by the NGF, as opposed to the more strenuous vocal requirements of later works.
For Rossini, a French artistic team was recruited, the production being directed by Jean-Romain Vesperini (rumour has it that he is soon to make his debut in a famous Italian festival where Rossini holds centre stage). This Cenerentola takes place in the eighteenth century of fairy tales ; while it never resorts to clowning, it does accept the comic aspect of the work, which some have tried to dispense with. More specifically, Jean-Romain Vesperini bravely does what some of his colleagues resign themselves to do only occasionally : even in globally “realistic” productions of Rossini’s opera-buffa, the characters often start dancing for a few seconds, simply because the pulsation of the music seems irresistible. Here, this rhythmic dynamism is immediately embraced, with a much more consistent result. We are quickly given to understand that the fairy tale will look like a revue, as summarized by the omnipresence of a characteristic accessory of old-time music-hall shows : ostrich feather fans. Not only the two ugly sisters, but also the members of the choir are constantly handling one of those. Feather fans are used to surround a soloist singing an aria. Clorinda and Tisbe appear as ludicrous chorus girls right from Don Magnifico’s first aria, Ramiro and Dandini also dance, their steps reminding one of a Bollywood choreography ; only Cenerentola and Alidoro are exempted. Anna Maria Heinrich’s costumes also underline the reference to music-hall shows, with the choir’s brightly-coloured Restoration wigs, coordinating with their shoes.
One might at first wonder why the performance does not take place in front of Palazzo Pitti (but that would mean a single decor, and there would be no difference between Don Magnifico’s decrepit abode and the Prince’s splendid residence). During the overture, one does wonder about the set which seems to be composed of a big white wall, with two small rooms in front, to let the singers walk onto the stage. But everything is suddenly transformed by the splendidly inventive videos designed by Etienne Guiol and Anouar Brissel, which take us in and out of Magnifico’s house, then into the Prince’s palace, with a lavish winter garden and a Hall of Mirrors. Superimposed graphics proliferate : flowers, angels or animals, like the braying ass which dominates Magnifico’s dream in his first aria.
Alidoro is the most discreet among the seven soloists, being a wise preceptor rather than a magician. Congolese bass Blaise Malaba has a solid, full voice ; he still has to make himself more familiar with the Italian language, and his diction could be neater ; perhaps that is why his only aria was cut. The two sisters do not only shine as (comic) dancers, but also as singers, soprano Giorgia Paci and especially Maltese mezzo Marvic Monreal with her luscious voice. Dandini is the other main comic character : after his entrance as an equestrian statue, he keeps the costume of Roman emperor so dear to Louis XIV. Gurgen Baveyan seems quite at ease, even though one could wish his lower notes to be louder. On the contrary, one does seldom hear a Don Magnifico as gloriously in voice as Daniel Mirosław : such an organ takes us very far from the elderly baritones who sometimes hold the part (he even reveals a strong counter-tenor voice when he has to sing in falsetto a few bars of his final aria). The comic aspect of the three girls’ father is obviously a bit diminished but, after all, Magnifico is “a pompous ass”, a conceited and ambitious man rather than an overwhelmed ninny, and his three arias need more than the half-spoken, half-sung delivery favoured by some singers at the end of their careers. Canadian Josh Lovell gathered much applause, and the second act did allow the audience to discover his splendid top notes. Svetlina Stoyanova has the physical and vocal qualities expected for Cenerentola : she is slim and graceful, she masters the wide ambitus and the necessary agility, and she avoids those darker, meaty contralto colours which would make the heroin sound too matronly.
Conducting the Orchestra Senzaspine, Sándor Károlyi has also chosen not to overemphasize the “buffa” aspect of the opera. The overture immediately announces that this will be a post-Mozartian Rossini, witty rather than clownish, which sounds totally convincing without taking anything away from the effects carefully elaborated by the composer.