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Jules MASSENET (1842-1912)
Cendrillon (1899)
Danielle de Niese (soprano) – Cendrillon, Kate Lindsey (mezzo-soprano) – Prince Charming, Lionel Lhote (baritone) – Pandolfe, Nina Minasyan (soprano) – Fairy Godmother, Agnes Zwierko (mezzo-soprano) – Madame de la Haltière, Eduarda Melo (soprano) – Noeme, Julie Pasturand (mezzo-soprano) – Dorothée, Adam Marsden (bass) – King, Anthony Osborne (tenor) – Dean, Romanas Kudriašovas (baritone) – Master of Ceremonies, Michael Wallace (baritone) – Prime Minister
Glyndebourne Chorus
London Philharmonic Orchestra/John Wilson
rec. live, 30 June 2019, Glyndebourne, Lewes, UK
OPUS ARTE OABD7267 Blu-ray [148 mins]

Although Cinderella may be a stalwart of the English pantomime tradition, and it is universally described as a fairy story, the supernatural elements which generally are held to distinguish the genre are a bit thin on the ground. After the initial appearance of the heroine at the Prince’s ball the only manifestation of magic that figures in the remainder of the plot is the glass slipper, and it has indeed been suggested that the appearance of this motif may simply be the result of mistranslation of “glass” for “fur”. Even the frisson of revolution that attaches to the idea of a prince marrying a commoner (and a lowly household drudge, at that) is blunted by the carefully emphasised explanation that she is the neglected daughter of a baron who has fallen on hard financial times. Of the two main European versions of the story that collected by the brothers Grimm (under the title Aschenbrodel) adds some rather nasty twists of revenge; the French version by Perrault dispenses even with these, retaining only the intervention of the Fairy Godmother who transforms the scullery-maid temporarily into the belle of the ball with the aid of some fairly basic conjuring tricks. In his operatic treatment, Rossini went even further, with the metamorphosis of the friendly fairy into the Prince’s enlightened tutor who does little more than arrange the various participants in the action like puppets fulfilling a pre-ordained role.

Massenet, on the other hand, not only retained Perrault’s exisiting fairy-tale elements but added some further fantasy of his own – in particular a lengthy woodland dream sequence where Cinderella and her Prince anticipate the joy of their wedding even before he has successfully re-discovered his lost bride, bringing back the Fairy Godmother as a starring coloratura role. Like most of Massenet’s later operas Cendrillon fell into almost total neglect after the composer’s death, and the first commercial recording did not appear until 1979 when a CBS set (now on Sony) recast the role of the Prince (whom Massenet, following the precedent of the English pantomime, had cast with a female singer) with the aged and strained tenor of Nicolai Gedda. Despite that unpromising start, the opera has managed over the last forty years to regain some measure of popularity, not unusually at the Christmas season when it is staged as a sort of operatic pantomime complete with plenty of magic tricks and enchantments to attract the public.

This production by Fiona Shaw from Glyndebourne seeks, however, to break to some extent with that tradition. With her Harry-Potter acting credentials, one might have imagined the producer looking for spectacular visual magic; but instead she has sought to re-envision the work in modern psychological terms, using the device of the Prince as a mezzo-soprano to explore themes of sexual identity in a way that would have quite startled the relentlessly heterosexual Massenet. That is not to say that she stints on the magic themes in the score, but they are realised in a different and provocatively imaginative manner. The Prince, in his quest searching for Cinderella, has already found in her (in his/her persona as her attentive nursemaid) following her delirium and dream in the forest – a forest which is clearly a manifestation of the subconscious at the same time as providing a fantastic spectacle on the transformed stage. At the end of that scene the ‘Prince’, now distinctly feminine, finds herself in bed with her beloved Cinderella in a moment that could seem tacky but is lent a romantic enchantment by the staging.

Other elements in the pantomime are more traditionally treated, but are lent extra depth by Shaw’s perceptive direction. The stepmother and her two daughters are every inch as ugly as an English pantomime aficionado might expect, the former giving a striptease as she gets out of her court finery after the ball which would give anybody nightmares. But she is given a reason for her malevolence towards Cinderella as her step-daughter, a desire for social advancement which is no less believable for being unpleasantly selfish. And the impoverished baron, so often a figure of fun, becomes a real father to Cinderella when he realises the depth of her despair, delivering an aria of comfort which ironically only serves to emphasise her sense of loneliness and lack of worth. It is at moments like these that Shaw’s production of the music brings a sense of deep dramatic truth that does much to bring magic to Massenet’s score. Other elements that are added – the young child Cinderella herself envisioning the Prince as a sort of wish-fulfilment, the animated butterflies that fly over the stage, and the huge transparent mirrors that reflect the protagonists and their dreams – confirm this other-worldly impression.

None of this would ring true if it were not for a superlatively acting cast of principal singers. Daniele de Niese identifies totally with the character of the heroine in this interpretation, and she sings gloriously throughout. So too does Kate Lindsay as her Prince, mutating from female to male and back again while pouring forth an unstinting flow of sound which makes me certain that I never want to hear this role sung by a tenor again. Nina Minasyan is a fizzing firework of a Fairy Godmother, dispatching her coloratura with deceptive ease; and Lionel Lhote makes much of his role as the baron with magnificent high notes and delivery. The stepmother and her two daughters – a taste of the modern world with their tacky consumerism – demand less in the way of singing, but the personalities of Agnes Zwierko, Eduarda Melo and Julie Pasturand came over in spades. The chorus and orchestra performed splendidly and responsively to the baton of John Wilson, who it seems to me is establishing himself as a major interpretative conductor in his own right and not simply as a discoverer of American musical scores. Massenet’s music for Cendrillon is uneven – he reserves his best writing for the interpolated dream sequence – but it coheres splendidly and delightfully throughout in this reading.

Apart from the lack of a track listing, or any documentary extras, the presentation of this issue is fine; Fiona Shaw herself gives a substantial interview regarding her approach to the score in the accompanying booklet, although this is provided in English only. We are furnished with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean; the recorded sound, as one would expect from Glyndebourne, is first-rate and the picture quality clear and precise in excellent video direction by François Rousillon.

Apart from the old CBS set mentioned above, there seem to be no currently available audio recordings of Cendrillon; but there are two alternative videos listed at Archiv. I have not seen either of these in full, but that from Covent Garden’s 2012 production (with Joyce di Donato and Alice Coote under Bertrand de Billy) takes a more light-hearted although equally unconventional approach and is available on DVD only. An alternative Blu-Ray from Naxos has a less stellar cast from Freiburg, features what looks like a more traditional pantomime style, but even from online samples appears to suffer from a rather boxy acoustic. As a thought-provoking approach to Massenet, this new Blu-Ray or its DVD equivalent would appear to command the field.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review (DVD): Mike Parr

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