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Jules MASSENET (1842–1912)
Cendrillon (‘Cinderella') A fairy tale in four acts (1896)
Lucette/Cendrillon-Danielle de Niese (soprano); La Fée-Nina Minasyan (soprano); Le Prince Charmant-Kate Lindsey (mezzo); Madame de la Haltière-Agnes Zwierko (mezzo); Pandolfe-Lionel Lhote (baritone)
Noémie-Eduarda Melo (soprano); Dorothée-Julie Pasturaud (mezzo)
London Philharmonic Orchestra; Glyndebourne Chorus/John Wilson
Production-Fiona Shaw; revived by Fiona Dunn
Set Designer-Jon Bausor
Costume Designer-Nicky Gillibrand
rec. live, 30 June 2019, Glyndebourne Festival, UK
Sound Format DTS HD MA 5.1 Surround; Dolby Digital 2.0
Picture Format 16:9, NTSC; Region free.
Sung language, French; Subtitles: French, English, German, Japanese, Korean
OPUS ARTE DVD OA1303D [148 mins]

Jules Massenet’s 1899 opera Cendrillon was among the very first operas that I saw and it was certainly the opera that made me fall in love with opera. Carefully judged amounts of romance, sentiment, danger, magic and humour all strike a perfect balance in Henri Cain’s expert libretto and Massenet’s scintillating score. I have long felt that it is the most successful of all of the operas among his later works.

This DVD presents a staging by the renowned director/actress Fiona Shaw, whose work I have long been impressed with. Unfortunately for Cendrillon Ms Shaw misses the mark in an extremely disappointing production. This staging has absolutely nothing to do with Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon and very little of Cain & Massenet either. There is a great deal of confusion left in the wake of playing havoc with the characters such as having the Prince also play a female servant in the household of Cinderella’s father. Kate Lindsey jumps back and forth between the two roles throughout the opera which is a dramatic misfire. She also has to subject to being resuscitated by a medical team in an ill-fated allusion to TV drama. Madame de la Haltière and her daughters are staged as wealthy but trashy shopping addicts which is simply not funny in the least. The striptease that Madame has to execute during her big aria in Act Three is just too distracting. It makes it impossible to concentrate on what she is actually singing about which is quite amusing enough on its own. There are a few nice touches throughout such as the wonderful butterfly imagery for Cendrillon and a beautiful staging for the duet when Cendrillon and the Prince first encounter one another in the ballroom scene. Staged with continually shifting and disorienting mirrors, it is one of the few moments of magic in the entire production although it would make far more dramatic sense to use it during the duet of the Forest scene in Act Three when Cinderella and the Prince cannot see or touch one another.

Among the cast Danielle de Niese is a winning Cendrillon. Her enchanting stage presence is the emotional core of this performance. Her voice with its lovely tremolo blends beautifully with Massenet’s music although it is obvious that her vocal production is not as free as it was in years past. This is a superb assumption all around and she even executes an impressive dance turn in Act Two.

The other standout on this DVD is the glamorous portrayal of the Fairy Godmother by Nina Minasyan. Her voice gleams like fine crystal as she executes the diaphanous music Massenet wrote for this role. She is quite beautiful in her elegant costume by designer Nicky Gillibrand. She certainly is an improvement over the harsher sounding Eglise Gutiérez on the rival Virgin DVD from Laurent Pelley’s Covent Garden staging. Kate Lindsey makes for a fine waif-like Prince. Her creamy voice is a pleasure to hear in this role even, if she is occasionally stretched by the demands of the music during the Act Three Forest scene.

Sadly here the pleasures end. Lionel Lhote wins points for his sympathetic acting of Pandolfe but his vocal assumption lacks nuance and delicacy when the music requires it. Both Jules Bastin on the Sony CD recording and Jean Philippe Lafont on the Virgin DVD give far better accounts. Agnes Zwierko is completely miscast as Madame de la Haltière. She is hampered by the worst aspects of the staging and much of the time she struggles with any sense of correct pitch in her higher range.

John Wilson seems to have found a nice approach to this multi-faceted score; his direction of the orchestra and chorus is a distinct pleasure. If he were to concentrate more of his time in the field of French music he could well become the go-to conductor for the French repertoire for the future.

Sound and camera work are thoroughly professional and there is an accompanying book which includes an interview with Fiona Shaw speaking about her directorial approach to the opera.

Among the two rival versions on Virgin and Naxos the Covent Garden staging on Virgin remains the best choice in a witty production by Laurent Pelly and an equally charming Cendrillon in Joyce di Donato. The Naxos staging from Freiburg is another disappointment.

It is long overdue for a company to obtain the rights and commercially release the 1979 Canadian television film of the first modern performance of Cendrillon. That production featured the peerless performances of Frederica von Stade, Ruth Welting, Louis Quilico and Maureen Forrester under the baton of the underappreciated conductor Mario Bernardi. The brilliantly choreographed staging of the late Brian Macdonald and the glorious fairy tale sets and costumes make it the benchmark for all future stagings of this opera.

Mike Parr

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