The year was 1969. Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, heretofore known only as a clever designer, directed his first production at the War Memorial Opera House: Rossini's enchanting retelling of the Cinderella story, "La Cenerentola." The unforgettable Teresa Berganza served as the waif with the golden heart and florid throat.
The rest, as they say, is history. The wit and wisdom, whimsy and pathos of the staging established Ponnelle as a something of a comic genius. His "Cenerentola," or a reasonable facsimile thereof, soon spread its delicate magic to Milan, Washington, London, Edinburgh, Munich, Florence, Naples, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Pittsburgh and Ottawa; also to film. It returned to San Francisco with a subdued Frederica von Stade in 1974, and with a brassy Marilyn Horne in 1982.
Now it is back again, probably for the last time, serving primarily as a debut vehicle for the much vaunted Olga Borodina of the Kirov Opera. She is very good, in her dark and dreary way. The production, alas, isn't what it used to be.
Ponnelle died tragically in 1988. The task of teaching the sorcerer's stylistic tricks and, more important, his expressive philosophies to a new team of singers has fallen to an unenviable apprentice, Christopher Alden. He is, as anyone who has seen opera in Long Beach knows, a director capable of extraordinary insight and invention on his own brash terms. Yet a disarming note in the program tells all.
"I feel," writes Alden, "a bit like a painter forging an Old Master."
The outlines of Ponnelle's original action scheme are, of course, still there. So are the black-and-white popup flats, complete with naughty in-joke figures atop the false proscenium. So are the elegantly amusing costumes. The basic visual frame serves nostalgia well.
Within that frame, Alden has manipulated the characters and their picturesque movements resourcefully. The tone, however, has been distorted. What used to be light and swift now tends to seem tough and cumbersome. What used to look spontaneous now seems dutiful. Most damaging, broad caricature has disfigured much of the human comedy. Where are the charms of yesteryear?
It is possible that a different cast would have been better able to exhume the essential Ponnelle spirit. This cast works too hard, and lets us know it too often.
The singers don't get a lot of help from the pit. Carlo Rizzi, in his first local assignment, musters speed without momentum, rhetoric without inflection, crescendos without climaxes and rhythmic structures without crisp definition. This is machine-gun Rossini.
Borodina, who clearly wants to enter the lofty Bartoli-Larmore sweepstakes, commands an extraordinarily lush and luscious mezzo-soprano that makes one long to hear her in "Samson et Dalila" or "Khovanshchina." She also commands considerable facility in matters of rapid-fire fioriture, especially at half voice. What she doesn't seem to command, unfortunately, is the spark needed to make the heroine more than a plump mope who sings with equal passion to her prince and to her broom.
Kurt Streit, her prince, cuts a dapper romantic figure on the stage but compromises the demands for heroic bravura with a strained tenorino bianco . Lucio Gallo brings considerable buffo finesse to the foppish poses of Dandini (Ponnelle could have done something with him). Simone Alaimo is not too magnificent, however, as a Don Magnifico whose quiet platitudes can enthrall only those unlucky enough to have missed the superbly seedy Paolo Montarsolo in the role.
Dale Travis, outfitted in a new and frightful man-from-Mars wig, stretches his baritonal resources beyond comfort in the extended duties of Cinderella's fairy godfather, a.k.a. Alidoro. Nicolle Foland and Elizabeth Bishop mug their way shamelessly, if with deft cheer, through the cartoon charades assigned the silly sisters.
R.I.P., Jean-Pierre Ponnelle.
* Final performance of "La Cenerentola" at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness. Ave. , San Francisco, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. $21-$125 (standing room $8). (415) 864-3330.