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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Cendrillon (1895)
Cendrillon - Joyce DiDonato (mezzo)
Prince Charming - Alice Coote (mezzo)
Pandolfe - Jean-Philippe Lafont (baritone)
Madame de la Haltière - Ewa Podles (alto)
Fairy - Eglise Gutiérez (soprano)
Noémie - Madeleine Pierard (soprano)
Dorothée - Kai Rüütel (soprano)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden/Bertrand de Billy
Laurent Pelly (Stage direction)
rec. live, Royal Opera House, July 2011
Region Code: 0; Aspect Ratio 16:9; PCM Stereo; Dolby Digital 5.1
VIRGIN CLASSICS 6025099 [2 DVDs: 148:00]

Experience Classicsonline

2011 saw the Royal Opera give its very first performance of Cendrillon. Massenet wrote his version of the Cinderella story in 1895 but it has only ever had a marginal place in the operatic repertoire, particularly outside France. Laurent Pelly’s production had premiered in Santa Fe in 2006 and I was in the audience on the first night of its run at Covent Garden. In the days afterwards many critics were quite sniffy about it, and it’s true that as an opera it’s about as substantial as a piece of candy floss - and, some would say, about as memorable - but there is something lovely in the way it works its magic. Its music, often gossamer-light, creates a very distinctive world, sugary sweet with a glint in its eye. Often it’s delightfully French, particularly in the ball scene of Act 2 with its character dances and swinging rhythms. The so-called “Magic Oak” scene in the second part of Act 3 is a real treat too, with an off-stage chorus of fairies weaving its spell around the coloratura of the Fairy Godmother herself, as Cinderella and the Prince look for each other in the enchanted wood. The “March of the Princesses” at the end, as they queue up to try on the glass slipper, sums up the opera very well: a light-as-a-feather march which twinkles and sparkles with a knowing glint in its eye. At the very end the whole cast turns to the audience and sings its “happily ever after” conclusion, as if to admit that we’ve been in on the fantasy all along. It’s probably true to say that if you’re not keen on Massenet’s oeuvre then Cendrillon won’t convert you, but if you want to go beyond Manon and Werther then there’s a lot here to enjoy.
The only other readily available Cendrillon is Julius Rudel’s CD version for Sony, but that has a tenor (Nicolai Gedda) in the breeches role of the prince, which should rule it out for most on the grounds of authenticity. So if you’re going to experience Cendrillon then there is no better way than through this DVD, which takes the work as it is and makes no apologies for doing so. Pelly, ever the master storyteller himself, admits to everyone that he is retelling a fantasy by having an enormous storybook page dominating the stage. It has the Perrault’s Cinderella story (in French) printed all over it, thus embracing the meta-narrative of the production. An aspect of this reappears on almost every piece of furniture in the set, even on the horses which draw Cinderella’s carriage. Pelly dresses up Madame de la Haltière (the not so wicked stepmother) and the (not so ugly) sisters in ill-fitting bonbon costumes to make them more objects of humour than instruments of suffering. He punks up the fairy godmother by giving her dyed hair and a bag full of attitude. He also uses lots of garish reds to characterise the royal court and the long line of eligible ladies that queue up for the prince’s hand. If you’re prepared to buy into it then you’ll love it. It’s a knowing yet innocent way of telling the story with enough references to keep the grown-ups involved while keeping the innocence of the story alive. I couldn’t quite see why he set the Magic Oak scene among a series of smoking chimneys, but he handles the other magical scenes so well that I could happily forgive any minor quibbles.
The singers also embrace the opera for what it is and seem to have a good time doing so. Joyce DiDonato has just the right voice for Cinderella, though I suspect that as her voice develops she’ll soon lose the air of innocence that the role needs. She hasn’t lost it yet, though, and the strong colour of her distinctive mezzo comes into its own in this role. She is good at evoking sympathy for the neglected child who sits among the ashes, and her wide-eyed delight at her magical transformation is lovely to see and hear. Her voice blends beautifully with that of Alice Coote who sounds lovely as the Prince, though she doesn’t look at all comfortable in the role. She spends most of the opera grimacing or sulking and, truth be told, she hasn’t been made up to look like a particularly convincing boy. This is one advantage that the theatre has over the DVD, but it’s one you’ll probably get over fairly quickly. The pair’s duets have a luxurious quality that works very well. Ewa Podles hams it up wonderfully as Madame de la Haltière, making the most of her plummy low registers and milking the character’s humour as much as its musical values, praise which could just as well go to the two sisters. As Cinderella’s father, Jean-Philippe Lafont is rather uncomfortably good at conveying the desiccated weariness of the character; a little more musical strength might have stood him in better stead. The finest singing, however, comes from Eglise Gutiérez as the Fairy Godmother. This is a stratospheric coloratura role, something Gutiérez is already famed for, but she manages to sing the coloratura with a dark, almost husky edge to it. She creates a spellbinding sound that goes beyond the merely childlike innocence of the music Massenet writes. The chorus are fully signed up to the tongue-in-cheek humour of the piece and de Billy conducts the orchestra with all the lightness of touch that the piece needs, injecting just the right amount of pathos into Act 3.
Like the theatrical event, this DVD might appeal to a rather narrow market, but if you’re tempted in the least then you’ll find plenty to enjoy. A series of bonus films features interviews with Joyce DiDonato, Alice Coote, Bertrand de Billy and Laurent Pelly.
Simon Thompson