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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Cendrillon, Conte de fées - opera in four acts (1899)
Pandolfe, Cendrillon’s father - Jean-Philippe Lafont (bass-baritone); Madame de la Haltière, his second wife - Ewa Podles (alto); Cendrillon, Pandolfe’s daughter - Joyce DiDonato (mezzo); Noémie, Pandolphe’s step-daughter - Madeleine Pierard (soprano); Dorothée, another step-daughter - Kai Rüütel (soprano); Fairy Godmother - Eglise Gutiérrez (soprano); Prince Charming - Alice Coote (mezzo); The King - Jeremy White (bass)
Royal Opera Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Bertrand De Billy
Director and Costume Designer: Laurent Pelly
Set designer: Barbara de Limburg
rec. July 2011
Picture format: 16:9
Sound: LPCM Stereo. DTS 5.1 Surround.
Subtitles: French (original language); English, German, Spanish, Italian
VIRGIN CLASSICS DVD 6025099 [75:23 + 73:14]

This production first saw light of day at the Santa Fe Opera in 2006. The production is shared between Grand Teatre de Liceu, Barcelona, Theatre de la Monnaie, Brussels and Opera de Lille. That promiscuity, for want of a better term, reflects something of the standing of the work and the composer. Written in 1895 Cendrillon didn’t get staged until 1899, making very slow progress thereafter.
The composer is mainly remembered for his version of the Manon story (1884) and Werther (1892). His music seemed to fit the Paris of the period following the dramatic departure of the Second Empire, the Siege of Paris and the burnings. The city itself, with its new boulevards, became the cultural and elegant glory of Europe. This endured until an untimely demise followed the decimation of France’s manhood, along with its cultural core, in World War I. Add the evolving musical directions and tastes in Europe and Massenet’s near-sentimental melodic music never really recovered. This was despite the later transient popularity of Esclarmonde (1889), promoted by Joan Sutherland and Thais (1894), by Renée Fleming.
The subject of Cendrillon has had to compete with Rossini’s La Cenerentola (1817) as an operatic retelling of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale, often coming second best. This production, with magnificent belle époque gowns by Laurent Pelly, should redress some of the neglect of the work, especially if sung and acted as well as here. Covent Garden spared no expense in casting with made to measure vocal and acted portrayals the order of the day. I suppose Jean-Philippe Lafont’s Pandolphe, the rather bumbling but kindly father of the heroine could be vocally steadier (DVD2. CH.4), but his acted portrayal more than compensates. As his harridan second wife Ewa Podles is outstanding in her portrayal, her baritonal lower notes and stage demeanour and acting putting everyone in fear and trembling. Her two daughters, in very colourful, tiered skirted dresses, play and sing their roles well.
In describing Ewa Podles’ portrayal as outstanding I am left seeking alternative superlatives for the other ladies of the cast. I have rarely seen, a travesti role better portrayed than that by Alice Coote as Prince Charmant. By demeanour, stance, walk as well as costume she could be male, I make that as the highest compliment, but, above all it is her singing that marks the greatness of her portrayal in its variety of tonal colour and range of expression. I make no apology of putting Alice Coote’s name before that of the singer of the eponymous role, Joyce DiDonato. She portrayed the title character in Santa Fe. She is in total command of the role, in her acting and of all the vocal nuances and demands. The security and flamboyance of her coloratura flights distinguish her portrayal (CH.5). It is on a par with the many bel canto roles I have seen sung by her and is quite magnificent.
Last, but not least of the female roles, is that of Prince Charming, sung by the Cuban-American Eglise Gutiérrez. Looking voluptuously stunning, and nearly spilling out of her fairy costume, I worried why the Prince hadn’t fancied her rather than Cendrillon. Maybe the slipper was rather small, much like aspects of this fairy’s costume. I have admired her singing in Opera Rara’s recording of Donizetti’s Linda di Chamounix (review) and as Amina in the Cagliari La Sonnambula (review). She has the odd moment of thin tone at the very top of the voice (DVD. CH.10), but handles the tessitura with aplomb elsewhere.
Laurent Pelly and his set designer follow an earlier pattern with a representational box set and writing on the folding walls but few props. A fireplace would have come in handy in act one. It is flexible and, I suppose, relatively cheap and not too difficult or expensive to cart round the world. A minor inconvenience when it facilitates the enjoyment that this performance delivers. It is, after all these years, Massenet’s due and is realised musically with particular felicity by Bertrand De Billy on the rostrum.

Whilst there are some cast interviews on disc one, the leaflet is wholly deficient in respect of Chapter division, content and cast therein. Spoiling the ship …

This may not be as good as Rossini, but the present production and cast do Massenet proud.
Robert J Farr 

Previous review: Simon Thompson