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Ash Wednesday

Joyce, Javier and now Julia—this week these three remarkable Js brought New York City memorable “Cinderella stories.” On Monday, one of opera’s reigning superstars returned to the Met shining in a Rossini role that suits her to a T alongside an exciting tenor having a thrilling breakout season.  Just two nights later, Juilliard Opera presented Cendrillon, Massenet’s hauntingly different 1899 take on Perrault’s fairy tale, featuring the luminous young soprano Julia Bullock in the title role, a star-making performance instantly becoming one of the season’s must-see events.  

Massenet’s heroine Lucette is a more melancholy lass than Angelina, the Cinderella of La Cenerentola, Rossini’s dramma giocoso which premiered more than 80 years earlier. While Angelina’s scrappy determination, aided by Alidoro’s intervention, paves the way for her eventual marriage to the Prince, Lucette’s triumph arrives courtesy of the magic that Rossini’s opera eschews: La Fée, her supernatural coloratura godmother, arrives to transform the sleeping girl into a breathtaking vision in pink (with the obligatory sparkly glass slippers) for the Prince’s ball.

In Peter Kazares’s warm and wise production, rather than tending a hearth this Cendrillon busies herself cleaning up the café which is part of the home that she shares with her feckless father Pandolfe and his obstreperous second wife Mme. de la Haltière and her vapid bovine daughters Dorothée and Noémie. Bullock’s exquisite opening monologue instantly manifested the girl’s sad resignation to work and work and not to dream of love and happiness. Throughout the long part, this immensely sympathetic artist displayed a glowing, wide-ranging soprano that descended from a secure top spiced with a quick vibrato to a mellow, smoky middle to a surprisingly full lower register.

If Lucette is a more passive participant in her own fate than Angelina, Bullock still projected a moving strength of character as Lucette hesitantly bantered with the heretofore morose Prince at the ball culminating in her tender ariette “Vous êtes mon Prince Charmant!” Yet when she has to flee the ball at the appointed midnight, this Cinderella lapsed into an implacable sadness that even her father’s tender pleadings could not dissuade. Here Bullock beautifully delineated Lucette’s shifting moods from quiet ecstasy to suicidal despair.

When she fled the café to do away with herself, Kazares has her end up in a cinema where she encounters the equally bereft Prince. Most of the other directorial choices for this quietly effective production set in postwar France seemed apt; however, the cinema fell flat proving a puzzling, less evocative alternative to the usual mysterious forest. Yet this directorial lapse could not mar this glorious scene (overseen by the ever-watchful La Fée) which features one of the most rapturous love duets in all French opera.

Massenet composed the Prince as a trouser role for mezzo soprano, something he repeated a few years later with the protagonist of Chérubin. If Juilliard’s prince, Lacey Jo Benter, failed to match the crystalline sublimity of her paramour, she partnered Bullock effectively in that great duet revealing a wild and rangy mezzo that could profit from being used with more finesse and subtlety.

Elizabeth Sutphen’s light soprano La Fée floated exquisitely over the action with blissful high notes and airy trills. She was wittily costumed as an efficient secretary with glasses and a sensible blue suit and helped by six sparky spirits clad in red movie-usherette uniforms. Throughout, those Gabriel Barry costumes (apparently all brooding Massenet heroes this season wear floor-length overcoats) and Donald Eastman’s simple and effective sets were beautifully lit by the always marvelous James F. Ingalls.

As Mme. de la Haltière, Avery Amereau brandished an effectively booming contralto but she must be careful to not force her young instrument; as her obedient daughters Marguerite Jones and Lilla Heinrich Szász pounced gamely onto their small roles while gleefully scarfing down some delectable-looking French pastries.

After Bullock, the evening’s most accomplished performer was Szymon Komasa, recent winner of the Marcella Sembrich Vocal Competition, as a warmly winning Pandolfe. His burnished baritone beautifully partnered Bullock in the exquisitely moving duet in which the anguished father promises his devastated daughter to flee the unforgiving city and return to their earlier, simpler life on the farm.

Conductor Emmanuel Villaume stirringly led a sumptuous and idiomatic student orchestra and also–before the final scene–donned a hat and turned to the audience to enthusiastically deliver a few lines of exposition. Unfortunately the program notes failed to make mention of the extensive cuts that reduced Massenet’s sprawling score to under two hours; several recordings I have of live performances of Cendrillon, including a recent one from Barcelona featuring Joyce DiDonato (who was spotted at the Juilliard opening) in the title role, take nearly two-and-a-half hours.

But, happily, Villaume and Kazares retained Massenet’s mezzo Prince unlike the otherwise fine Frederica von Stade recording and the 2007 New York City Opera production both of which inexplicably substituted a tenor thereby ruining the love duets.

Along with being enraptured by the radiant Julia (who was equally marvelous last year in the title role of Juilliard Opera’s production of Jána?ek’s The Cunning Little Vixen), I suspect that—like my friend and I—most of the audience left the theater wondering why this sweet and touching opera isn’t done more often. I have loved it almost more than any other Massenet opera since I saw the underrated Faith Esham in the title role of New York City Opera’s previous production nearly 30 years ago.

But two performances remain of Juilliard’s delectable contribution to Lincoln Center’s “Cinderella-fest,” as do two (with Joyce and Javier, that is) of the Met’s just across the street.

Photos: Nan Melville

12 comments

  • DeCaffarrelli says:

    A correction: I overlooked a passage in the Director’s Note where he mentoned the cuts made to the score.

  • Camille says:

    Pardon me, but is this Peter KazarAs, the former tenor who is associated with Seattle Opera, or entirely different individual? The names are too similar so I am wondering.

    Very, very sorry to miss this production by only just a few days.

    The role of Prince Charmant may be marked mezzo-soprano but it also clearly states on the listing for the various dramatis personæ that it may also be sung by “FALCON”, an entirely different category of fish. I haven’t seen the score for a long time now but I do recall noting it as such. Sorry to be a nerd.

  • Krunoslav says:

    “What I recall is “Falcon ou ‘soprano de sentiment’”; no mention of mezzos at all.

    The creatrix, Marie-Louise van Émelen, was a soprano, who also sang the soprano role of Phryne in Saint-Saens’ opera of the a name. Geneviève Vix also sang Le prince-- as did Cieca’s beloved Mary Garden, in Chicago opposite the Cendrillon Maggie Teyte-- who lived to sing Melisande opposite Theodor Uppmann 35 years later!

    We heard at Juilliard from the interesting mezzo’s very audible problems up top that Le Prince is indeed a soprano role, though several mezzos have done it very well, including Alice Coote and ( in that initial NYCO production) Delia Wallis.

    I say this as a native New Yorker: I think Julia Bullock was already a star to those who have heard her outside Verona Wall — for example singing ‘Somewhere at the San Francisco Symphony in MTT’s WSS project just being released on recordings--the same way Michael Fabiano was before LOMBARDI.

    • Camille says:

      Oh thank you, Krunoslav. I had entirely forgotten about that curious denomination ‘soprano de sentiment’, which rather sounds like someone from a Café-Casino type of establishment, come to think of it.

      No mezzo at all, then? I did not entirely recall whether it was also one of the categorizations.

      • Krunoslav says:

        ‘soprano de sentiment’, “dugazon” — gotta love it!

        • Camille says:

          I most certainly DO love it!

          Just ask papopera, for he is our resident expert on the Dugazon, ‘jeune’ et ‘mère’. I just love the French categorisation of vocal types.

      • Camille says:

        Café-concerts, it should read.

        Someone will must certainly gratify themself by jumping my arse if I don’t make the correction.

    • Camille says:

      You know, Dame Maggie Teyte made such a beautiful recording of “Beau soir”. I do not know if it be on YouTube or not but it was from an ancient recording I had as a girl. Probably forty years have elapsed since I had that recording but I still can hear her voice singing that song in my memory. I felt she was a great artist and am a little curious why I have never bothered digging up more of her stuff. Impossible back in those days but now it would be.

      I can well imagine her Mélisande being both haunting and beautiful, in just the right way.

  • Poison Ivy says:

    For Cinderella completists, my first ever “Cinderella” recording of anything actually was the Cendrillon of Pauline Viardot on Opera Rara.

    http://www.amazon.com/Il-Salotto-Vol-Viardot-Cendrillon/dp/B002XYVWUI/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1398399212&sr=1-1&keywords=cendrillon+opera+rara

    Lovely little jewel of an opera.

    I saw Massenet’s Cendrillon at City Opera in a dreadful production with a mostly awful cast where I stayed to the end but 75% of the audience didn’t. Later I sought out recordings. There was a good telecast with von Stade that never got released. I also have the JDD video.

    Thanks for the review Decaff. By the time I wanted to buy tickets the whole thing was sold out. I do love the opera though. Sir Kenneth MacMillan worked a lot of it into his ballet adaptation of “Manon.”

  • Cicciabella says:

    Thank you, DeCaff, for this lovely review. The production looks fun and stylish and it’s always heartening to read about talented young singers. I always enjoy your vivid, always respectful reviews. And now I will borrow Camille’s apology (sorry to be a nerd) to point out that dramma in Italian is masculine, so it’s a dramma giocoso. There is a feminine dramma, but it means drachma or dram, as in “a dram of whisky”. School out!

  • oedipe says:

    Thanks for the review.

    I would mention in passing that Karine Deshayes is a superlative Cendrillon. She sang the role in Barcelona, alternating with DiDonato, and got an enthusiastic reception from reviewers and the audience.

  • Camille says:

    Uncle Bernie’s review. He liked it! He really, really liked it!
    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/6b8011de-cb91-11e3-8ccf-00144feabdc0.html#axzz304ABNcvk