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Jules MASSENET (1842–1912)
Cendrillon (‘Cinderella') A fairy tale in four acts (1896)
Kim-Lillian Strebel, Cendrillon; Katharina Melnikova, La Fée; Anat Czarny, Le Prince Charmant; Anja Jung, Madame de la Haltière; Juan Orozco, Pandolfe
Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg/Fabrice Bollon
rec. 2017, Theater Freiburg, Germany
Sound Format PCM Stereo, DTS HD MA 5.1 Surround; Picture Format 16:9, 1080i; Region free.
Sung language, French; Subtitles: French, English, German, Japanese, Korean
Reviewed in surround
NAXOS Blu-ray NBD0079V [139 mins]

It says on the back cover of this box that, "Jules Massenet’s fairy-tale opera Cendrillon (‘Cinderella’) was an immediate success at its premiere in 1899 at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. Massenet, then at the height of his powers, creates a magical sound-world full of wit, enchantment and perfumed elegance to match librettist Henri Cain’s coming-of-age adaptation of this classic fairy tale. The colourful fantasy world created by the acclaimed stage director Barbrara Mundel and set designer Olga Motta features the British-Swiss soprano, Kim-Lillian Strebel, in her critically acclaimed title role." All of which is true but conceals several problems both with the opera in general and this version in particular.

Henri Cain adapted Cendrillon ou la Petite Pantoufle de verre by Charles Perrault, Cinderella or The Little Glass Slipper. Perrault is the man to whom we owe the introduction of the fairy-godmother, here just 'The Fairy', the slipper and the pumpkin coach, and that, as re-imagined by Disney, is the version now known to all. The librettist Henri Cain sets the well known events up until Cendrillon's departure from the ball at midnight. Then he introduces a lengthy storyline which occupies the whole of Act 3 and the first Scene of Act 4, only returning to our post-Disney expectations for the very end. Even that has a unique slant as the Stepmother drops all wickedness to point out that, despite her earlier hatred she really has always loved Cendrillon! Cendrillon's father steps forward to the audience to say, "all's well, that ends well" and he hopes we've enjoyed our visit to Fairyland! Cain's additions to the 3rd and 4th Acts concern Cendrillon returning with her father to their original home where she either visits Fairyland or dreams that she does. There she meets the Fairy again and also Prince Charming: the two pledge their undying love. When she awakes in Act 4 it is not clear what is real and what she has imagined and also how long she has been in this mystical world.

From the composer's viewpoint this complex libretto gives many opportunities for characterisation and musical mood-painting and Massenet provides all this with consummate skill including more than a hint of Wagnerian leitmotif. There is fairy-music, there is drama, there is comedy and there is the most beautiful love-duet which, with the Fairy joining in, becomes an almost Straussian trio. In the uncut opera there is also ballet but it seems not to be included here, or perhaps the cavorting clowns of regietheater distracted me from it - more of this below. All the singers are good but young stars Kim-Lillian Strebel as Cendrillon and Katharina Melnikova as the Fairy are particularly fine. The trousers-role of Prince Charming is a challenging one because the singer has to act utterly uninterested for her first appearance and indeed has a lot of ennui to express, all without boring the audience. I did not feel this worked so well. The Father and Step-Mother could have been more characterful, as they are in the excellent Royal Opera House 2011 performance (only on DVD).

The directorial decision to enlarge our distance from the plotline has not helped. This is a fairytale and thus not to be taken as true. It is an opera, as made very clear by the trappings of the theatre, singers, a chorus and a large orchestra, so another layer of abstraction is in place. Before the curtain rises or the music starts a line of identical little Cinderellas queue with their identical fathers to buy tickets to, as the curtain pulls back to reveal, a circus! As we go through another proscenium arch, this one with coloured lights, the inner stage is a rotating circus ring on which are the circus performers. Cinderella's menial role is to be the knife thrower's assistant and she stands spread-eagled against the target while the knife-thrower, her father (!), utilises the little team of identical Cinderellas to carry his thrown knives to her and affix them around her body. Freudians please avert your gaze. The Stepmother too, Madame de la Haltière, has an inappropriate pre-occupation with knives as she explains to her daughters that they must behave well at the King's Ball whilst extracting her husband's knives from Cendrillon's erstwhile target backing! Everything that follows is within that rather dark concept of the story and for me the layers of abstraction, added to an unfamiliar version of the Cinderella story, made this a hard performance to watch with any understanding. It seemed to me that even some of those on stage looked unconvinced. The Ugly Sisters and their mother are costumed as Pierrots, as are a lot of the chorus. Some of the chorus are clowns. The Fairy too is clownish and I have to mention the small child dressed as an elephant who wanders in and out of the action. Comparison with the abovementioned ROH DVD did this Freiburg attempt no favours. At Covent Garden the story is played through a much less extreme frame of reference, looking mostly like a fairytale, allowing all the performers to project utter belief in what they do and indeed to be very funny at times.

This originally hugely successful opera has not been particularly lucky since Massenet's day. First it dropped out of the repertoire for decades. The premiere recording was not made until 1978 and had a tenor as Prince (Nicolai Gedda admittedly but not what the composer intended). This disc has unsanctioned cuts. The lovely ROH production is not on Blu-ray video. Naxos have given us a good picture and sound, a good musical performance but a bizarre and overcomplicated staging. Personally, I will stay with Covent Garden, even without all the hi-res sound and picture. In fact that performance has more energy and is better sung anyway.

I should not conclude without noting the lovely voices of Frederica von Stade as Cendrillon and Ruth Welting as the Fairy in the abovementioned premiere audio recording. This appears to be only available as a download at present but it is performed with considerable attention to Massenet's balletic mastery. A lot of this score dances and it really is no surprise it was such a success for the composer.

Dave Billinge



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