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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Cendrillon (1896)

Frederica von Stade (mezzo) Cendrillon; Nicolai Gedda (tenor) Prince Charmant; Jane Berbié (soprano) Madame de la Haltière; Jules Bastin (bass) Pandolfe; Ruth Welting (soprano) La Fée; Teresa Cahill (soprano) Noémie; Elizabeth Bainbridge (mezzo) Dorothée; Claude Méloni (tenor) Le Roi, La Voix du Héraut; Paul Crook (tenor) Le Doyen de la Faculté; Christian du Plessis (baritone) Le Surintendant des Plaisirs; John Noble (baritone) Le Premier Ministre
Ambrosian Opera Chorus; Philharmonia Orchestra ADD /Julius Rudel
Rec All Saints Church, London, in 1978.
[two discs: 136’33: 71’18 + 65’15]

First issued on CD on CBS Masterworks CD79323 (itself from the 1979 LP issue, 79323), this set positively sparkles with joy. Its fairy-tale story, known surely to all (Cinderella) is perfectly suited to the masterly craft of Jules Massenet, whose operas must surely soon receive the full attention they deserve. A concert performance of Thaïs at the Barbican by ENO recently acted as a timely reminder of that work’s stature (review). But that is only one of a total of 25 from this composer’s pen – and the level of inspiration in Cendrillon is hardly less. The magic/fairytale element clearly suited Massenet’s wide and sensitive orchestrational palette, while the vivacious story of Princes, magic and balls makes for pure delight.

The cast here is really rather starry, boasting the likes of von Stade, Gedda and Bastin. Ruth Welting was a name new to me, yet her account of the Fairy’s mesmerising coloratura roulades is consistently ravishing (her roles at the Metropolitan, New York included Zerbinetta Ariadne auf Naxos, Königin der Nacht Zauberflöte and Gilda Rigoletto).

After an introduction that fizzes along, the chorus shows their prowess (‘Chez Madame de la Haltière’). Yet it is the focussed voice of Jules Bastin’s Pandolfe that really impresses. In tandem with Rudel’s exemplary pacing, every word is clear. Bastin’s aria (Scene 2, ‘Du côte de la barbe’) is excellent, with the singer placing his high notes perfectly. Again fast and clear, Bastin’s projection of the comedic ‘Félicitez-moi donc’ and his ensuing contributions (track 7) are perfectly done. Wherever he sings, Bastin is focussed and his pitching is uniformly true.

Cinderella has to wait until Scene 5 (track 8) before she enters our consciousness in the rather sighing line ‘Ah! Que mes soeurs sont heureuse!’. Von Stade is magnificent in providing just the right bleak tone appropriate for her character’s malaise. How plaintive is the simple cry of ‘Ah!’, how meaningful the phrase ‘Résigne-toi, Cendrille’. Her joy at the end of the act is similarly brought to life (the repetitions of ‘Je suis Reine’, for example). Or try von Stade in Act 3 Scene 1, her tuning faultless, her scales sparking away, her pitching clean. During the course of this performance it is easy to sympathise with Cinderella’s distress, as well as to smile with her.

Nicolai Gedda’s Prince Charming matches von Stade’s Cinders. His Act 2 Scene 2 shows off his truly lovely round tone to perfection and it is worth noting that he is thoroughly convincing here, despite the cheesiness of some of the lines he has to sing (‘Coeur sans amour, printemps sans roses’ …). It is at moments like this that I wondered the omission of a libretto might not be so bad after all …. When Cinderella and her Prince are in duet (Act 2 Scene 4), it is all one could have hoped for. Gedda provides an outpouring of passion against von Stade’s lovely, simple and tender innocence. Their voices are suited to a tee. Again, Gedda’s ardent singing warms the heart towards the end of Act 3.

As mentioned above, Ruth Welting is superb. She emits an aura of the approachably supernatural with her vocal twists and turns, and her thoroughly delightful trills. The other star of this set is the Ambrosian Opera Chorus. Massenet puts his chorus to good use, and the Ambrosian responds with disciplined yet touching singing, the Fairies floating along nicely (CD2 Track 10).

The sparkling repartee of Noémie (Teresa Cahill) and Dorothée (Elizabeth Bainbridge) in Act 3 Scene 2 exemplifies these singers’ grasp of Massenet’s world while Jane Berbié’s strong mezzo cuts an imposing Madame de la Haltière.

Julius Rudel’s command is never once in doubt and it is good that his orchestra gets the chance to shine in the Dances of Act 2 (CD 1, Tracks 15-19), but the many felicities of scoring throughout the opera mean that the Philharmonia is a source of constant delight.

Unfortunately Sony only provides the sketchiest of synopses and a track list (no singers tacked on to the latter, either). Mercifully, the libretto is available on the net (although without translation) at Although it is easy to lambast companies like Hänssler that skimp on booklets by providing web-links to downloadable notes, at least they provide something. It seems such a shame to provide indifferent packaging for a performance that is, after all, something rather special. As far as the actual product goes, this is a Recording of the Month if ever there was one.

Colin Clarke


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