Round midnight

As a child I had but a few criteria that were necessary to ensure a happy entertainment.  These included mostly ball-gowns, fairy godmothers and Julie Andrews, though Sally Ann Howes was acceptable in a pinch. Naturally this gave my mother pause. Happy was I to discover that as my tastes matured these touchstones would follow me into the operatic milieu, most especially, with Jules Massenet’s lovely opera Cendrillon.

I’m certain most of you can still be found clutching the sole commercial recording released in 1978 with Frederica von Stade (our friend Flicka), lovingly conducted by Julius Rudel.  Now, after 34 years unchallenged, you can finally lay it down gently and pick up this delightful new performance from the Royal Opera Covent Garden that’s been released by Virgin Classics.  (Mon dieu, what a wait it has been!)  

Massenet’s work premiered in 1899 and he announced in Le Figaro at the time that it would be his last for the lyric stage. Naturally, in true operatic fashion, he would go on to write 10 more works for the stage before his death in 1912. The French have always taken great pleasure in a good mezzo-soprano and the composer of Werther, Herodiade and Sapho was certainly among them, in more ways than one.  It would almost seem that the French stage at the time was populated by a preponderance of lyric mezzos and lyric coloratura sopranos and Massenet most certainly took advantage of this as well, in more ways than… oh, you get it.

This production originated with the Santa Fe Opera in 2006 and was a co-production with three other European companies besides Covent Garden by the time they filmed it last July. As anyone who’s been to Santa Fe knows they are limited in what they can accomplish, even in the new theater, because of the outdoor setting and the lack of fly space. Luckily, none of this has dissuaded the ever-so-clever Laurent Pelly from fashioning, and I mean literally, this very charming production.  The familiar triangular set up here with doors along both sides and everything covered with the French text from Charles Perrault’s well-known story and I do mean, everything.

Pelly designs his own costumes and they almost steal the show, from the formidable derriere of Cendrillon’s Stepmother to the outrageous ball gowns of the courtiers. They’re not only designed with great imagination, they’re constructed extremely well.  Normally in productions of this ilk it looks like there’s only one dressmaker in town but we certainly don’t have that problem here. The dilemma we do face, however, is that there seems to be only one color available.  I understand how a monochromatic scheme highlights the designs themselves but, really. Red, red and more red.  I thought we we’re in France, so purple at least ?

He gives us an urban Cendrillon rather than a pastoral and it fits the limitations of the staging.  There are quite a few moments of theatrical magic here. Especially the sleep interlude that leads up to the Fairy’s entrance and the downright hilarious parade of the single shod females limping in for their fitting opportunity. The ballets, by Laura Scozzi and recreated here by Karine Girard, are all very, very broad and show the influence of Matthew Bourne’s best comic work.

As to the cast we have nary a weak link. The Father, Pandolfe, played by Jean-Philippe Lafont certainly has the measure of the language and if his dark baritone tends to the wooly at his age he does pull it together in time for his tender duet with his daughter, whose real name is Lisette, in Act III.

The stepsisters, Madeleine Pierard and Kai Rüütel, play the whole show like they’re straight out of a Tex Avery cartoon and it doesn’t ever get tired.

What can you say about Ewa Podles as the stepmother, Madame de la Haltière? She actually scared me when she sang her first line. I’ve heard her on records, naturally, but never in proximity to mere mortals onstage.  With her astonishing contralto, coupled with a sincere love of the theater as evidenced in her pungent performance and self-effacing curtain call, she’s everything you could hope for… and quite a bit more.

It’s hard to think of another coloratura showcase as diabolical as Le Fée. Sure Zerbinetta’s more fiendishly written but only for about 15 minutes.  Nevertheless,  Eglise Guitiérrez fairily walks away with her portion of the evening. With such a ridiculously voluptuous figure the phrase “balloon smuggler” comes to mind, she vamps across the stage in her lilac spiked hairdo and her front-slit gown with a collar of fashioned ostrich plumes like she just left the touring production of a punk-rock Hello,Dolly!  It’s a big, warm sound that completely avoids the brittle quality of smaller voices that tend to excel in a role like this. If at times she errs on the side of approximatura it’s easy to forgive.

The one fault of that long ago studio recording had was its casting of the Prince Charmant as a tenor which is something Massenet never sanctioned.  We are very fortunate to have Alice Coote in the role and she puts her lyric mezzo to excellent use here.  Her opening scene is good but she’s more sullen youth than full grown man. The two duets with Cendrillon are really the musical highlight of the evening and their voices are particularly well matched. My minor niggle is that Msr. Pelly instructs her to drop to her knees too often in order to disguise the fact that Ms. Coote was apparently raised in a family of dwarfs.

Joyce DiDonato is the raison d’etre for this entire enterprise and she is more than worthy of the complement.  The proverbial slipper fits precisely. She’s magnificent in her plaintive introduction aria and pours her heart into the two duets with the Prince and the one with her father. Her French is piquant and technically her singing is nearly flawless with some stunning high pianissimi.  She’s also a charming and affecting actress and, most importantly, she knows how to wear a ball gown.

Bertrand de Billy saunters into the pit in what only can be described as a pair of silk conductors pajamas, but  this is his only offense of the evening. He leads an energetic reading, especially adept at keeping all the ballet music witty in correlation with the staging. The Covent Garden forces provide excellent support under his Gallic guidance.

The DVD has been processed a little on the weak side when it comes to picture and I found pumping up the color a tad more than usual helps with clarifying a slightly fuzzy image.  I wish the video director Olivier Simmonet had framed the action more often than just catching up with it.  There is real theatrical magic here and sometimes it feels like you’ve almost missed something. Sound is excellent.

An extremely fine addition to the catalog of a very under represented and charming work with a cast that I’m certain Massenet himself would have enjoyed, in more ways than one.