"Fasten your seat belts -- it's going to be a bumpy night." That dry-as-burgundy declaration from Margo Channing in "All About Eve" would have been a good epigraph for "Cinderella & Company," Manuela Hoelterhoff's sly, amusingly candid snapshot of the modern opera world. Hoelterhoff escorts us through two years in the career of the supercharming Italian mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli, starting with her starring role in a production of Rossini's "Cenerentola" in Houston and following her back and forth across the ocean as she mounts (and, on occasion, cancels) various engagements.
But Bartoli is merely the center of a glorious pinwheel: Hoelterhoff blends gossip, reportage and crackerjack observation to render in living color the world that swirls around the singer. Hoelterhoff shows us how the opera world has changed since the days of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, but even more refreshingly, she shows us how it's stayed the same. The characters on her stage -- the singers, the assistants, the managers, the directors, the costume and production designer, the people who run the fustily dignified organization known as the Met -- are almost as rich and idiosyncratic as the characters they're devoted to bringing to life in performance. There are all kinds of backstage melodramas and love affairs, capricious cancellations for real reasons and concocted ones and glamour manifested in the form of limousines, luxury ocean liners and Rolex endorsements. Hoelterhoff (who won a Pulitzer Prize for cultural criticism at the Wall Street Journal) so nonchalantly takes the measure of those around her that you sometimes wonder if any of them will ever talk to her again. She describes Herbert Breslin, Luciano Pavarotti's manager -- who, Hoelterhoff explains, once foiled a book she'd hoped to write about the famous tenor -- as "a motor-mouthed, bullet-headed, forever-tan egomaniac who is adored and loathed in about equal proportions among those who've had the joy of doing business with him. I used to go through the obituary section of the Times looking for his -- a little squib tucked under the fold, somewhere beneath retired postmasters and minor-league ballplayers from the 1950s."
Hoelterhoff notes that she and Breslin patched things up after the book debacle. Then she proceeds to say, "Herbert is seventy-one, and though he's got the vigor and venom of a much younger man, he hates getting older, and spends twenty minutes on the treadmill every day so that his Armani jacket will close neatly over the little pot belly into which, just now, he was stuffing a doughnut." Hoelterhoff shows nothing but genuine love for opera as an art form, as well as a deep respect and affection for the people who, sometimes seemingly against all odds, keep it alive. But her passion can't be tamed: "Cinderella & Company" is as wily and artful as that wickedly upturned swoop of eyeliner Maria Callas was famous for. As Breslin with his pot belly would probably advise you, better not forget that seat belt.