Cher Public

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.

  • WindyCityOperaman

    Julie and Sally Ann . . . wot, no mention of Lesley Ann?

    (at one time a Balachine baby at the School of the American Ballet BTW)

    I heard wonderful Monsieur Lafont in Berio’s unfortunate Il re in ascolto. Asking my friend whose favorite film was ‘Babette’s Feast’ what he thought of the baritone, he came up empty. Had to remind him who he was!

    • traviata136

      I loved this Cinderella. I saw it when I was in 2nd grade and never forgot it. I can still sing it. Maybe that’s what made me love opera??

  • Camille

    Very nicely done, Patrick.

    The Prince Charmant role was listed as a FALCON. And I am not referring to Die Frau, hier. It may also say “Première Chanteuse Forte”, as well, but I have not looked at the frontispiece of the score in a while. It sure as hell does not say “lyric mezzo”, a bogus category if ever there was one!

    I think I’ll stick with Flicka, in any case.

    • Nerva Nelli

      Bad decision, Camille- the von Stade recording ( I speak here not of the CBC film) is fatally flawed by the casting of a tenor (even Gedda) as the Prince. Same applied to the relatively recent NYCO show with the very fine and handsome Frederic Antoun-- one of many instances of the former Music Director caving to directors’ preferences (or should one say in this instance “orientations”…

      • Camille

        Nerva, although I respect you as I would the Oracle of Delphi, I’ll take a bad decision like Nicolai Gedda any day, over a broad. How else do you think I became

        BADASS CamIlle?

    • papopera

      Mme de la Haltière……..mezzo soprano ou contralto
      Le prince Charmant……..falcon ou soprano de sentiment (sic) “ayant le physique du costume” writes Massenet which means, she must look butch.

      The von Stade recording is excellent except for the idiotic decision to cast Gedda in it, probably a marketing plug.

      • Camille

        Merci mucho, papopera.

        Now then, can any expert out there precisely define ‘soprano de sentiment’ for us? Please, I’ve already been to Wikepedia and various pages myself so no need to reiterate. It is, an intensely and particular type of French soprano--dark and dramatic--think falcon--and Massenet did specify falcon, as well. So then, why the necessity to pull out this other term, ‘soprano de sentiment’ when ‘falcon’ would have sufficed. Perhaps because falcon is a term for Grande Opera operas and this is specified as a “conte de fées”??

        I’m just curious, that’s all. Doesn’t really matter all that much to most people. I don’t think that “zwischenfach” is a good enough term and I rather admire the French manner of vocal categorisation, i.e., the Dugazons, the Premier Fort Tenor, Basse Chantante, and so forth.

    • tiger1dk

      Camille, why is “lyric mezzo” a bogus category?

  • La marquise de Merteuil

    I was at this production at Covent Garden.

    Approximatura is a good way to describe that soprano’s coloratura.

    Ewa Podles really did steal the show! Even though some idiots in the audience were booing her curtain call… go figure.

    JDD -- was sincere but made no impression on me. Could take her or leave her. However Alice Coote sang the SH8T out of the music…

    A good production -- but really drek in musical terms IMO.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      I was there too, and I agree with everything you say. Guitierrez was particularly disappointing- didn’t come even close to living up to the hype- she was actually very ropey.

      • PushedUpMezzo

        Third Norn says yes to these comments. I saw it twice and Guitierrez was worse on the second hearing. JDD was rather distant, I felt, not like her at all. Alice Coote, who has had her ups and downs vocally in the past (Opera North Cherubino and ENO Carmen for starters), was stormingly good. You could feel all the adolescent hormones as well as hear the luxuriant tone. I was actually quite shocked by some of her music. This is a great production of a minor, but pleasurable piece.

        • PushedUpMezzo

          And if anyone has any clips of a punk Hello Dolly, please post.
          I saw a production auf Deutsch with hot-air balloon at the Vienna Volksoper some time back, and was stunned to discover some operetta-style tunes which benefited from a bit more vocal finesse than the divine Miss Channing ever pretended to -- almost Lehar in places.

    • NOT content with Guitierrez, either as Linda or the Fairy. The tone sounds worn and there is a limit as to how much one can approximate written pitch.

      • Tamerlano

        I’ve heard Gutierrez live only once, as Lucia in Montreal 3 years ago…I thought she sang well, but generically. The voice itself had an intriguing smokiness (gauziness, almost) that was lovely, but grew old fast. She peeled out big trick notes in alt that sounded great, but were placed REALLY far back in the throat making me think they wouldn’t be around for long. She does it in that clip from Cendrillon all over the place. There are early clips of her singing the shit out of the “Cuatros Madrigales” of Rodrigo. It’s glorious singing.

        • Cocky Kurwenal

          Very perceptive on Gutierrez’s vocal production. She also doesn’t have the stamina for this stuff -- she got absolutely nackered during Sonnambula, and had to drop quavers here and there to give herself a chance to pull herself together and carry on.

  • Gualtier M

    I frankly am somewhat bewildered as to when the title role of Cendrillon became a lyric mezzo assignment. The original cast had Julia Giraudon, a soprano and one Emelen listed as “falcon ou soprano de sentiment” as the Prince. How we got from that to two mezzos or lyric mezzo and tenor is beyond me. BTW: there was a Chicago revival in 1911 with Maggie Teyte as Cendrillon and Mary Garden as the Prince.

    BTW: the opera was televised from Ottawa Canada in 1979 with Frederica Von Stade and Delia Wallis with Maureen Forrester, Ruth Welting and Louis Quilico in support. Pirate videos are available from the usual suspects. If the CBC ever bothered to do a clean up of the master tape of that one it might offer competition to the DVD reviewed so well by Mr. Mack.

    • Camille

      “Mary Garden as the Prince.”

      So then, this is truly a fachless role….

    • Gualtier M

      Corrections: Julia Guiraudon was the original Cendrillon and sopranos like Rose Heilbronner followed her. I also have a recording of Von Stade singing the big Prince/Cendrillon duet with Marilyn Horne from a mid-70’s concert.

      I think that Von Stade was the first mezzo to sing Cendrillon which was exclusively a soprano role before that. Joyce Di Donato like Von Stade has a very high placement for a mezzo and is practically a soprano. Before 1850 she probably would have been classified as a soprano.

      • Camille

        You mean this duo?

        Really beautiful. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, Gualtier.

    • Arianna a Nasso

      Nothing to be bewildered about. Flicka took it on in the 70s when she sang lots of low soprano roles like Melisande and roles that were often sung by sopranos and mezzos like Octavian, Charlotte, Cherubino, etc. She was the most famous artist to sing this rarely performed role after the war and made the only commercial recording, so ignorant casting directors have since assumed that Cendrillon can be sung by anyone who sings Cherubino. Had someone like Cotrubas, Kathleen Battle, Barbara Bonney, or Ruth Ann Swenson taken on the role in a high profile production and made a recording, audiences might have realized Flicka was the exception rather than the rule in how the role ought to be cast.

    • Nerva Nelli

      Marie-Louise van Émelen, in full…

    • MontyNostry

      Gualtier -- I saw that production in Paris in 1980 and loved it, though with Faith Esham rather than von Stade as Cendrillon. A long time ago, of course, so who knows what I would think now. I thought the Pelly production missed the sentiment and even the whimsy of the piece, and all that red (evoking the morocco leather binding of a book of Perrault, I believe) made it look like an old-fashioned London pub. The direction was too hard-edged and self-consciously comic. Of all the singers, I found Coote the most memorable, even if her tone can get a bit yowly at times. JDD wasn’t on best form the night I saw her, lacking spin on the floated top notes.

    • papopera

      Indeed, indeed. Its was magnificent, saw it in Ottawa then. Repeatedly requested the CBC for a VHS copy of that performance but they never answered. It should definitely be released on DVD.

  • Tenorfach

    I attended this production too at ROH, London -- in fact I attended 5 performances including the GR.

    Initially at the GR I was disappointed, but on opening night and each subsequent performance I was completely blown away by this production.

    TOTALLY loved it each night being completely mesmerised by it night after night -- spellbound by the performances of Alice Cote and Joyce DiDonato.

    Whoever you are, there will always be good and bad in any one production -- it is the very nature of opera.

    For me the ever so slightly negative, was that of Eglise Guitiérrez and that is only a personal thing, that I never took to her voice or the manner in which the character was portrayed -- not to indicate that I found her a bad singer, because she is not.

    For me this is a MUST have DVD and it has long since been on the shelve and is revisited with great joy, regularly.


  • armerjacquino

    Here’s another Cinderella for them as wants it- Rossini’s, from Glyndebourne, with Donose and Mironov.

    • The production that changed Rossini-perception for me, once and for all.

  • Camille

    Yet another Cinderella story:

    Anyone here see this at SUNY-Purchase back in March?

    • papopera

      que c’est beau! adorable! merci

      • papopera

        ……..sauf pour ce con de ténor